Google Loses Fight Over the Right to Be Forgotten

     (CN) - Google bears the responsibility to erase personal information from its search engines for a person trying to be forgotten on the Internet, Europe's highest court ruled Tuesday.
     The ruling stems from the efforts of a Spanish man to remove the traces of a 1998 electronic newspaper article about a foreclosure auction due to his Social Security debts. After discovering that the proceedings came up in a Google search of his name more than a decade after he resolved the issue, he filed a complaint with the Spanish Data Protection Agency against the newspaper and Google.
     In 2010, the agency ordered Google Spain and California-based Google Inc. to remove the links. It dismissed the case against the newspaper.
     Considering Google's appeal, Spain's high court asked the European Court of Justice for clarification of the EU's data privacy laws.
     An adviser to the EU high court weighed in nearly a year ago and held that, while outdated, European law does not expressly regulate free search engines like Google. The adviser added that Google cannot be viewed as the "controller" of Internet information as EU law currently stands, and that Europeans have overblown the notion of web-privacy rights - particularly over the so-called "right to be forgotten."
     After taking that opinion under advisement, the Luxembourg-based high court found Tuesday that Google is a controller of data for the purposes of European law, given that it indexes, retrieves, records, organizes and stores data, and then makes the data available to users as a list of search results.
     "It would be contrary not only to the clear wording of that provision but also to its objective - which is to ensure, through a broad definition of the concept of 'controller,' effective and complete protection of data subjects - to exclude the operator of a search engine from that definition on the ground that it does not exercise control over the personal data published on the web pages of third parties," the court wrote.
     The court also rejected Google's arguments that its offices throughout Europe do not open the Silicon Valley-based company to EU data-privacy laws.
     Regardless of where Google houses its search engines, Google Spain accepts advertising euros - and EU law applies, according to the ruling.
     "The activities of the operator of the search engine and those of its establishment situated in the member state concerned are inextricably linked since the activities relating to the advertising space constitute the means of rendering the search engine at issue economically profitable and that engine is, at the same time, the means enabling those activities to be performed," the court wrote.
     As far as a person's right to be forgotten on the Internet, the court admitted the difficulty in striking a balance between the public's right to know and individual-privacy interests. But just as time heals all wounds, time also sometimes makes Google search results irrelevant, according to the ruling.
     "Even initially lawful processing of accurate data may, in the course of time, become incompatible with the directive where those data are no longer necessary in the light of the purposes for which they were collected or processed," the court wrote. "That is so in particular where they appear to be inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant, or excessive in relation to those purposes and in the light of the time that has elapsed.
     "Therefore, if it is found, following a request by the data subject that the inclusion in the list of results displayed following a search made on the basis of his name of the links to web pages published lawfully by third parties and containing true information relating to him personally is, at this point in time, incompatible with EU law because that information appears to be inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant, or excessive in relation to the purposes of the processing at issue carried out by the operator of the search engine, the information and links concerned in the list of results must be erased," the court concluded.
     A spokesperson for the European Commission, the EU's regulatory branch, said that, despite the court's ruling, the agency would still push lawmakers for clear right-to-be-forgotten legislation that placed the burden on companies - not individuals - to prove why outdated items should remain in search engines.