Google lost a landmark, “right to be forgotten” case at the end of last week, with the High Court in London ruling that it had to delist from its search results articles relating to a businessman’s past crimes.
But the ruling does not put Google in a bad light, as such. Rather, it highlights that the company, in recent years, has occupied a weird role in the European Union, as a privatized enforcer of EU privacy law–and that sometimes it makes the wrong call.
The man, identified only as “NT2” under British reporting restrictions, had served a six-month sentence early this century for conspiring to spy on communications. He recently asked Google to remove links to articles about the case, under the EU’s controversial “right to be forgotten” rules. Google said no, but the High Court said on Friday that the company had to delist those results.
However, the court simultaneously ruled the other way, regarding the case of another businessman. “NT1” also wanted Google to delist articles about his past crime–this time an accounting conspiracy–which dated back to the 1990s and which earned him four-year prison sentence. This time, the court said Google did not have to delete the links.
The “right to be forgotten” rule has caused a great deal of outrage over the past four years, since the EU’s top court ruled that it applied to search engines. It states that people should be able to ask for information about them to be removed from search results, if it is “inaccurate, inadequate, irrelevant or excessive.”
The outrage has mostly come from the media, which is understandably concerned about the potential for miscreants covering their tracks when readers should be informed about what they did.
On the face of it, these cases exemplify just that. But there’s more to it–as the diverging verdicts on the cases of NT1 and NT2 demonstrate, each case is different. The right to be forgotten, which stems from EU privacy law, is not an absolute right. It is supposed to be balanced against the public interest and other factors.
NT1 lost his case because he apparently still plays a role in public life, and the information he wanted to see scrubbed from Google Search was “essentially public in character,” the judge, Justice Mark Warby, ruled. NT2 won because the information about his crime “has become out of date, irrelevant and of no sufficient legitimate interest to users of Google Search to justify its continued availability.” NT1 continues to mislead the public, Warby said, while NT2 has expressed genuine remorse.
It’s worth noting that, even when ruling that Google was wrong to deny NT2’s delisting request, Warby said the company did not have to pay him any compensation or damages. He wrote:
“The main issue would seem to be the conduct of Google. Was it reasonable and, if so, does that excuse the company from liability for damages? These are difficult issues, on which I have reached firm conclusions only after a trial lasting several days. It would be …read more