Google must delete 'irrelevant' links at the request of ordinary individuals, rules top EU court

Confusion over practical implications after landmark ruling on data protection

Brussels

The European Court of Justice struck a major blow against the right of internet companies to hold unlimited information on individuals when it ordered Google to remove links that are deemed “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant”.

The court’s decision will allow individuals the right to ask internet search engines to remove links to information about them that they do not want known – which could be seen either as an assertion of the right to privacy or an attack on free speech. Google and free speech activists reacted angrily to the court’s verdict which could guarantee individuals a “right to be forgotten” on the internet which is not currently available.

It is unclear exactly how the ruling will be implemented considering the sheer volume of online data and internet users. For individuals keen to erase embarrassing incidents from their past, it could prove a handy tool for re-shaping their digital footprint, while data protection advocates are calling it a victory against the all-powerful internet giants.

But for champions of free speech, the potential for misuse is deeply worrying.

“This is akin to marching into a library and forcing it to pulp books,” said Jodie Ginsberg, chief executive of Index on Censorship. “Although the ruling is intended for private individuals, it opens the door to anyone who wants to whitewash their personal history.”

It was a repossessed home in Catalonia which sparked the battle between privacy campaigners, search engines such as Google and free speech advocates. Mario Costeja Gonzalez was dismayed to find searches on his name still threw up a 1998 newspaper article on past financial problems, even though many years had passed and his debts were paid off.

Read more: Q&A: The ECJ ruling on Google
Comment: how easy is it to clean up after yourself?
Editorial: A fine principle, but fiendish to implement

A Spanish court referred his request for the link to be removed to the Court of Justice of the European Union in Luxembourg, which ruled in favour of Mr Costeja. The judges decided that search engines did have a duty to make sure that data deemed “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant” did not appear. Ordinary citizens could also request that search engines remove links to sites which contained excessive personal data on them. 

Google had argued that it was not in control of the content – it was merely linking to it – and therefore the onus for removing any out-of-date information was on the websites themselves.

“We are very surprised that [this decision] differs so dramatically from the Advocate General’s opinion and the warnings and consequences that he spelled out. We now need to take time to analyse the implications,” said a Google spokesman, Al Verney. He was referring to an opinion issued an adviser to the European Court of Justice last year expressing concern that freedom of speech could be threatened.

Google headquarters in California (Getty) Google headquarters in California (Getty)
This clash between the right to privacy and the right to information is an ongoing one in Europe. In 2012, the EU’s executive arm, the European Commission, proposed a law granting people the right to be forgotten on the internet. The European Parliament however watered it down, and internet companies have been lobbying member states not to approve the legislation.

They have an ally in the free speech groups, which argue that giving an individual the right to decide what can be removed from search engines with no legal oversight has worrying implications.

“The court’s decision is a retrograde move that misunderstands the role and responsibility of search engines and the wider internet,” said Ms Ginsberg. “It should send chills down the spine of everyone in the European Union who believes in the crucial importance of free expression and freedom of information.”

Javier Ruiz, Policy Director at Open Rights Group, agreed. “We need to take into account individuals’ right to privacy, but if search engines are forced to remove links to legitimate content that is already in the public domain... it could lead to online censorship,” he said.

A Google data center in Hamina, Finland (AP) A Google data center in Hamina, Finland (AP)
But the battle lines are not entirely clear. People are increasingly concerned about the safety of their personal data since allegations emerged last year of mass government surveillance. The EU’s Justice Commissioner, Viviane Reding, called the ruling a “strong tailwind” in the commission’s efforts to tighten data protection in the bloc. “Companies can no longer hide behind their servers being based in California or anywhere else in the world,” she wrote on Facebook.

It is now up to legal experts with search engines like Google, Yahoo and Bing to work out how they can possibly implement the law, and what processes will be put in place to allow people to appeal against the links,. For the man who started it all, he is pleased that his case has created an opening for ordinary people to stand up to the often faceless Internet giants. “It’s a great relief to be shown that you were right when you have fought for your ideas, it’s a joy,” Mr Costeja told the Associated Press.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
election 2015The 10 best quotes of the campaign
News
A caravan being used as a polling station in Ford near Salisbury, during the 2010 election
election 2015The Independent's guide to get you through polling day
News
people
Voices
David Blunkett joins the Labour candidate for Redcar Anna Turley on a campaigning visit last month
voicesWhat I learnt from my years in government, by the former Home Secretary David Blunkett
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (B2B) - Romford - £40,000 + car

£35000 - £40000 per annum + car and benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager...

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000 ...

Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

£35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

Typefaces still matter in the digital age

A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

Crisp sales are in decline

As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

Ronald McDonald the muse

A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
13 best picnic blankets

13 best picnic blankets

Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'