Google Wins Landmark EU Case Over ‘Right to Be Forgotten’

The Google logo at the company’s headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File)

LUXEMBOURG (CN) – Google scored a major overseas victory Tuesday, as Europe’s highest court ruled that the “right to be forgotten” online only applies inside the European Union.

The European Court of Justice handed down two rulings in disputes between the internet giant and the CNIL, short for France’s Commission for Information Technology and Civil Liberties, over how Google complies with requests for link removals.

In one case, the CNIL ordered Google to delist information from global search results rather than merely within the European Union. Google refused to comply and was fined nearly $110,000, which it appealed.

“It’s plain common sense that one country should not have the right to impose its rules on the citizens of another, especially not when it comes to lawful content,” Google said in a 2016 blog post.

That case was heard last year in the Court of Justice, where Google was backed by Microsoft, Article 19, the Wikimedia Foundation and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, among others.

On Tuesday, the EU’s top court ruled that “there is no obligation under EU law, for a search engine operator who grants a request for de-referencing made by a data subject … to carry out such a de-referencing on all the versions of its search engine.”

The court held that the removal of links should apply across the European Union, but need not extend beyond the 28-nation bloc.

Google uses geoblocking to ensure that search results within the EU comply with a 2014 directive giving individuals the right to delete information about them that is no longer relevant.

“French authorities had no right to force their interests on Internet users in other countries, and allowing such worldwide restrictions in the interest of enforcing domestic law would lead many other countries to try to restrict Internet access,” the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press said in a statement.

The second case addresses the question of whether Google should, in the public interest, remove sensitive content. The CNIL asked the court to look into four delisting complaints that the agency itself had refused to put to Google.

The websites in question involved a satirical photomontage of a female politician posted online under a pseudonym, an article referring to one of the interested parties as the public relations officer for the Church of Scientology, the announcement of an investigation of a male politician, and the conviction of another interested party for sexual assaults against minors.

In that case, the Court of Justice ruled Tuesday that the “right to the protection of personal data is not an absolute right” and “must be considered in relation to its function in society and be balanced against other fundamental rights.”

“Where the operator of a search engine receives a request for de-referencing relating to a link to a web page on which such sensitive data are published, the operator must … [determine] whether the inclusion of that link in the list of results displayed following a search on the basis of the data subject’s name is strictly necessary for protecting the freedom of information of internet users potentially interested in accessing that web page by means of such a search,” the ruling states.

Google itself reports that it has had 846,327 requests to delist information to date, and around 45% of those are removed from its search results. But Dr. Roxana Radu, a researcher at the University of Oxford who works on internet regulation, said there is very little information “about how Google approaches the right to be forgotten.”

Peter Fleischer, Google’s senior privacy counsel, said he was happy with the court’s decisions.

“Since 2014, we’ve worked hard to implement the right to be forgotten in Europe, and to strike a sensible balance between people’s rights of access to information and privacy,” he said in a statement.

These two cases are not the only disputes between CNIL and Google. Early this year, the agency fined Google nearly $55 million for “lack of transparency, inadequate information and lack of valid consent regarding the ads personalization.”

Neither of Tuesday’s rulings can be appealed.

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