Google Sways Magistrate on Limiting Right to Be Forgotten

The Google logo is seen at the Google headquarters in Brussels on March 23, 2010. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo, File)

(CN) – Europeans today enjoy the “right to be forgotten” when it comes to internet-search results, but an EU magistrate took Google’s side Thursday when it comes to applying that right globally.

The case before the European Court of Justice stems from objections by French regulators to how Google complies with requests for link removals.

France argued that when people complain about search results their names generate, Google should ensure that links are erased from all domain extensions, not just, for example.

The CNIL, short for France’s Commission for Information Technology and Civil Liberties, also complained about Google’s proposal to alter search results based on location data conveyed by the user’s internet protocol address.

If a user’s IP address shows they are in the same country as the person whose name they are searching, no matter what version of the search engine they use, Google’s geo-blocking proposal would prevent them from accessing results.

Google appealed when the CNIL hit it with a 100,000 euro fine in 2016, and France’s Council of State in turn sought input on the case from the European Court of Justice.

Chiming in Thursday with a nonbinding, advisory opinion, Advocate General Maciej Szpunar emphasized the need to balance the right to be forgotten against other fundamental rights, such as the right to data protection and the right to privacy, as well as the public interest. 

“If worldwide de-referencing were permitted, the EU authorities would not be able to define and determine a right to receive information, let alone balance it against the other fundamental rights to data protection and to privacy,” Szpunar found, as summarized in a press release. “This is all the more so since such a public interest in accessing information will necessarily vary from one third state to another depending on its geographic location. There would be a risk, if worldwide de-referencing were possible, that persons in third states would be prevented from accessing information and, in turn, that third states would prevent persons in the EU member states from accessing information. “

A copy of Szpunar’s ruling is not available in English. Representatives for Google have not responded to an email seeking comment.

The advocate general did call it possible that a case requiring global dereferencing would arise, but he said the present case does not justify this.

Apart from rejecting the CNIL’s demand, Szpunar had another recommendation for the Court of Justice. “Once a right to de-referencing within the EU has been established, the search engine operator must take every measure available to it to ensure full and effective de-referencing within the EU, including by use of the ‘geo-blocking’ technique, in respect of an IP address deemed to be located in one of the member states, irrespective of the domain name used by the internet user who performs the search,” he said, as summarized in the press release.

The CNIL’s dealings with Google are at issue in another opinion Thursday from Szpunar at the European Court of Justice.

In this case, a press release explains, the CNIL did not take action when four people complained about search results to webpages showing “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 placing under investigation of a male politician and the conviction of another interested party for sexual assaults against minors.”

Rather than implicating the right to be forgotten, this case concerns Google’s responsibility as a data processor when the data at issue concerns hot-button issues such as political opinions, religious beliefs and sex. Again the Court of Justice did not make Szpunar’s opinion available in English, but a press release says he found that search-engine operators should face the same prohibition as other data controllers when it comes to processing such data.

As for how Google handle the requests to dereference, Szpunar recommended that it “weigh up, on the one hand, the right to respect for private life and the right to protection of data and, on the other hand, the right of the public to access the information concerned and the right to freedom of expression of the person who provided the information.”

Szpunar also touched on what Google should do when confronted on personal data that appears “incomplete, inaccurate or obsolete, such as, for example, press articles relating to a period before the conclusion of judicial proceedings.”

“In such circumstances,” Szpunar said, as summarized by the court, “it is necessary for the operator of a search engine to conduct a balancing exercise on a case-by-case basis between, on the one hand, the right to respect for private life and the right to protection of data … and, on the other hand, the right of the public to access the information concerned, while taking into account the fact that that information relates to journalism or constitutes artistic or literary expression.”

The decisions of advocates general are not binding on the Court of Justice, which will now begin its own deliberations in the case.

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