EU High Court Limits Businessman’s ‘Right to Be Forgotten’

(CN) – Europe’s recently revamped “right to be forgotten” has limits according to the European Court of Justice, which ruled Thursday that an Italian business group doesn’t owe a man damages for linking him to a bankrupt company in a public database.

Salvatore Manni sued the Lecce, Italy, chamber of commerce, claiming the reason he couldn’t move properties in a tourist complex was because publicly available records named him as the administrator of a company that went bankrupt in the early 1990s.

A court in Lecce agreed and ordered the chamber to make the data linking Manni to the bankruptcy anonymous, and awarded him compensatory damages.

The chamber appealed, leading the appellate court to ask the European Court of Justice whether laws on personal data protection and the disclosure of company documents barred the public from accessing company data. The court also asked whether there is a limit to the amount of time such data should be freely available.

In its preliminary ruling, the EU high court noted the purpose of public company registers is to ensure legal certainty between companies and third parties, and to protect the parties since the only promise companies bring to the table is their assets.

Furthermore, the Luxembourg-based court said the registers need to be available long after companies fold since matters often arise for which the information is necessary. And given the variations in member states’ statutes of limitations, the court said fixing an EU-wide temporal limit on making registers publicly available is impossible.

While the court acknowledged this need conflicts with the constitutional guarantees of right to privacy and personal data protection, it said the limited amount of personal data available in company registers and the choice of individuals to work in business justified the infringement.

The EU court added that there may be cases where a person could have their data removed from a company register, but it should be a rare occurrence handled on a case-by-case basis and many years after the company they worked for has folded. In any case, the court said it’s up to member states to make those exceptions part of their national laws.

As for Manni, the court said his inability to sell tourist units because potential buyers have access to the database linking him to a failed company doesn’t warrant his right to be forgotten. Potential buyers have a legitimate interest in Manni’s past business dealings, the court said.

The high court’s preliminary ruling is binding on the Italian appeals court, which must decide the case accordingly.

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