Google bows to European court decision

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  • Jennie Sumpster

Privacy specialists have welcomed web giant Google’s decision to respond to a landmark European Court of Justice judgment with a new ‘right to be forgotten’ procedure – but warned that it is too early to judge its effectiveness.

In Google Spain SL, Google Inc v Agencia Espanola de Protection de Datos, Mario Costeja Gonazales, Europe’s highest court ruled earlier this month that Google was responsible as a data controller for the content of web links thrown up by searches.

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The company today posted an online form for any web user to request the removal of specific links.

Viviane Reding, Europe’s justice commissioner and an advocate for a new so-called right of erasure, described the move as ‘a good development’.

However specialist lawyers were more cautious about the implications.

Nicola Fulford, commercial technology partner at London technology and digital media firm Kemp Little, described the form as a ‘positive step’ but warned that the test would be how the procedure works in practice. ‘The main problem is that they are setting themselves up to be judge and jury by weighing the public interest in each request.’

Jennie Sumpster (pictured), senior associate at media firm Schillings, said many uncertainties remain: ‘This is an important first step for Google to have taken and shows a willingness to accept the judgment and to make the process easier for users who wish to enforce their rights under European data protection legislation.  

‘It is clear however that a lot still rests on the outcome of discussions between the European data protection regulators over the coming weeks as to a common approach to enforcement, and Google are quite sensibly waiting for this before they fully open their doors to the mountain of requests they have already received.’

Fulford warned that, given the resources involved, search engines may be tempted to agree by default to take down requests, allowing public figures to cover up embarrassing incidents of their past.

Striking a balance might be a role for ‘cyber courts’ along the lines of those proposed by Germany’s interior ministry this week. These would take the form of specialist judicial bodies with powers to settle disputes between web companies and individuals. 

The Information Commissioner’s Office said the court’s judgment ‘provides space’ to strike a balance between the right to privacy and the public’s right to know. ‘It is important to keep the implications in proportion and recognise that there is no absolute right to have links removed,’ said David Smith, deputy commissioner and head of data protection.

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