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Forget it: Top EU court orders Google to remove results with proven falsehoods

Nearly a decade after the landmark "right-to-be-forgotten" ruling, the European Court of Justice rejected Google's claims about freedom of expression.

LUXEMBOURG (CN) — Alphabet, the parent company of Google, must remove search results if they are shown to be incorrect, the EU’s highest court ruled Thursday.

The European Court of Justice sided with a pair of businessmen who filed a suit in Germany after the search giant refused to take down links to a purported extortion blog falsely accusing the men of malfeasance. 

In the latest battle over the right to be forgotten, the Luxembourg-based court ruled that, if a user demonstrates the error in online information, the Silicon Valley behemoth must dereference the material from its search results, and users do not need a court ruling to prove the content is erroneous.

The articles that inspired this suit were posted in 2015 and criticized the investment models of two financial service advisers in Germany. Pictures of the pair — called T.U. and R.E. by the court to protect their privacy — driving luxury cars, in a helicopter and in front of a charter plane were included in three articles. 

A company called G-LLC operated the blog where the posts appeared, referred to in court documents as g-net. The company claims to prevent fraud and provide transparency in financial markets but has been accused of publishing negative stories and asking money from the subjects of those stories to remove them. 

Google refused the men's delisting request, claiming the information could be relevant and that it was under no obligation to investigate whether the allegations are true. The German Federal Court of Justice asked the EU’s top court to weigh in. 

The 17-judge panel agreed that Google shouldn’t be responsible for substantiating a claim of incorrect information but, where a user has proof that it the information is wrong, the company has to remove it. Search engines must remove content “where the person who has made a request for de-referencing submits relevant and sufficient evidence … establishing the manifest inaccuracy of the information found in the referenced content.”

During hearings in the case in January, Google argued the issue was one of freedom of expression. But the court pushed back, saying freedom of expression wasn’t applicable when the information in question was false. “The right to freedom of expression and information cannot be taken into account where … the information found in the referenced content proves to be inaccurate,” the ruling states. 

Thursday’s ruling hews to an opinion from Advocate General Giovanni Pitruzzella in April. The Italian judge wrote in his nonbinding conclusion for the court that Google must look into claims of false information. 

Google was also on the receiving end of a privacy complaint that led to the landmark ruling in 2014 when the court held that all EU residents had the right to be forgotten. In that case, Google had refused to remove from its search results decades-old listings of foreclosure auctions over unpaid social security debts. In the case, which originated in Spain, Google said it wasn’t the “controller” of such information. This right was later codified in EU law in the 2018 General Data Protection Regulation. 

Google managed to limit the reach of the right to be forgotten in 2019, when it convinced the same court that an obligation to remove information applies only to searches in the European Union. 

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