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Google wins privacy case: ‘Right to be forgotten’ applies only in EU

Google
Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif.
(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

Handing Google a major victory, the European Union’s highest court ruled Tuesday that the EU’s “right to be forgotten” rules, which let people control what comes up when their names are searched online, do not apply outside the 28-nation bloc.

Over the last five years, people in Europe have had the right to ask Google and other search engines to delete links to outdated or embarrassing information about themselves, even if the information is true. More recently, France’s privacy regulator wanted the rule applied to all of Google’s search engines, even those outside Europe.

But the European Court of Justice declared there is “no obligation under EU law for a search engine operator” to abide by the rule outside the EU.

The court said, however, that a search engine operator must put measures in place to discourage internet users from going outside the EU to find the missing information.

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The decision highlights the growing tension between privacy and the public’s right to know, and it underscores the difficulties in enforcing different jurisdictions’ rules when it comes to the borderless internet.

It also illustrates how the internet is regulated more heavily in Europe than in the United States, where authorities are constrained by the public’s 1st Amendment rights to free speech and freedom of the press. The United States has no laws equivalent to Europe’s “right to be forgotten” measure.

Peter Fleischer, Google’s senior privacy counsel, said he welcomed the ruling and added that the Mountain View, Calif., internet search giant has worked hard “to strike a sensible balance between people’s rights of access to information and privacy.”

Those who wanted to see the rule extended beyond the EU argued that on the internet it is easy to switch between national versions of Google’s website — from google.fr to google.com, for example — to find missing information.

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Since Google started handling “right to be forgotten” requests in 2014, it has deleted about 1.3 million web links from its search results, or 45% of all requests processed, according to the company’s transparency report.

Takedown requests filed by Europeans are reviewed by Google staff members, based mainly in Ireland, who look into whether the webpage contains sensitive information such as race, religion or sexual orientation; relates to children or crimes committed as a minor; or is about old convictions, acquittals or false accusations.

Last year, Google removed a link to a 1984 German news article about a person’s conviction for hijacking an East German airplane to flee to West Germany because the article was “very old” and related to now-repealed laws against illegal emigration.

Links to pages about a former politician involved in a drug scandal were deleted because they disclosed his home address, and links to information about convictions for rapes, sexual abuse and aiding and abetting terrorism were removed because those offenders had served their sentences.

Google, a division of Alphabet Inc., does not remove such material from all web searches, just when a person’s name is typed in. The material still shows up when other search terms are used.

Google says it may reject a delisting request if the page contains information that is “strongly in the public interest.” That can include material on public figures that relates to the person’s criminal record.

It can also say no if the content consists of government documents or is “journalistic in nature.”

Tuesday’s ruling is final and becomes the benchmark on which courts in the 28-nation bloc must base their decisions relating to such cases.


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