14 May 2014


Posts over several years have noted disagreements about conceptualisation and practicality of a narrow or broad 'right to be forgotten', in particular mechanisms that would enable individuals and businesses to require search engine operators such as Google to suppress to particular third-party sites/pages when providing lists of search results.

As I discussed in an article in Privacy Law Bulletin some time ago, that requirement would not delete all sites, pages and comments. It would however inhibit identification by many searchers, given that people who are not savvy and/or diligent often rely on superficial searches of the web that don't extend much beyond scanning the first two pages of Google search results.

The requirement has been criticised as a commercial burden and an inappropriate restriction of free speech. Proponents have characterised it as an appropriate compromise, given that it may be impractical for an individual to successfully take action against publishers and other entities in different jurisdictions.

The European Court of Justice (Grand Chamber) has now disregarded the Opinion of 25 June 2013 warning against the 'Right' and in Case C‑131/12 - Google Spain SL, Google Inc. v Agencia Española de Protección de Datos (AEPD), Mario Costeja González - found for Gonzalez, i.e. recognised the right in relation to search engines.

The Opinion was discussed here.

Importantly the court has not required other parties - such as newspapers, broadcasters and bloggers - to expunge contested personal information from their pages and has accordingly not established a comprehensive, readily enforceable 'right to be forgotten'.

The Agencia Española de Protección de Datos (AEPD) - counterpart of national data protection bodies such as CNIL and the OAIC - had ordered Google "to adopt the measures necessary to withdraw personal data relating to Mr Costeja González from its index and to prevent access to the data in the future".

Neither the AEPD nor the Court have ordered that all content on the web to which González objects should be expunged. However, Google should ensure that Google does not point to particular sites when it provides search results.

The judgment notes that  EU Directive 95/46
has the object of protecting the fundamental rights and freedoms of natural persons, and in particular their right to privacy with respect to the processing of personal data, and of removing obstacles to the free flow of such data, states in recitals 2, 10, 18 to 20 and 25 in its preamble:
‘(2) … data-processing systems are designed to serve man; … they must, whatever the nationality or residence of natural persons, respect their fundamental rights and freedoms, notably the right to privacy, and contribute to … the well-being of individuals; ... 
(10) … the object of the national laws on the processing of personal data is to protect fundamental rights and freedoms, notably the right to privacy, which is recognised both in Article 8 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms [, signed in Rome on 4 November 1950,] and in the general principles of Community law; … for that reason, the approximation of those laws must not result in any lessening of the protection they afford but must, on the contrary, seek to ensure a high level of protection in the Community; 
… the principles of protection must be reflected, on the one hand, in the obligations imposed on persons … responsible for processing, in particular regarding data quality, technical security, notification to the supervisory authority, and the circumstances under which processing can be carried out, and, on the other hand, in the right conferred on individuals, the data on whom are the subject of processing, to be informed that processing is taking place, to consult the data, to request corrections and even to object to processing in certain circumstances’.
The Court goes on to note that
On 5 March 2010, Mr Costeja González, a Spanish national resident in Spain, lodged with the AEPD a complaint against La Vanguardia Ediciones SL, which publishes a daily newspaper with a large circulation, in particular in Catalonia (Spain) (‘La Vanguardia’), and against Google Spain and Google Inc. The complaint was based on the fact that, when an internet user entered Mr Costeja González’s name in the search engine of the Google group (‘Google Search’), he would obtain links to two pages of La Vanguardia’s newspaper, of 19 January and 9 March 1998 respectively, on which an announcement mentioning Mr Costeja González’s name appeared for a real-estate auction connected with attachment proceedings for the recovery of social security debts. 
By that complaint, Mr Costeja González requested, first, that La Vanguardia be required either to remove or alter those pages so that the personal data relating to him no longer appeared or to use certain tools made available by search engines in order to protect the data. 
Second, he requested that Google Spain or Google Inc. be required to remove or conceal the personal data relating to him so that they ceased to be included in the search results and no longer appeared in the links to La Vanguardia. Mr Costeja González stated in this context that the attachment proceedings concerning him had been fully resolved for a number of years and that reference to them was now entirely irrelevant. 
Importantly, in its 30 July 2010 decision the AEPD rejected the complaint in relation to La Vanguardia (i.e. did not require the publisher to expunge the print/online coverage or publish an apology, correction or annotation). The Court notes that the AEPD viewed La Vanguardia's publication as
legally justified as it took place upon order of the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs and was intended to give maximum publicity to the auction in order to secure as many bidders as possible.
On the other hand, the complaint was upheld in so far as it was directed against Google Spain and Google Inc. The AEPD considered in this regard that operators of search engines are subject to data protection legislation given that they carry out data processing for which they are responsible and act as intermediaries in the information society. The AEPD took the view that it has the power to require the withdrawal of data and the prohibition of access to certain data by the operators of search engines when it considers that the locating and dissemination of the data are liable to compromise the fundamental right to data protection and the dignity of persons in the broad sense, and this would also encompass the mere wish of the person concerned that such data not be known to third parties. The AEPD considered that that obligation may be owed directly by operators of search engines, without it being necessary to erase the data or information from the website where they appear, including when retention of the information on that site is justified by a statutory provision. 
The Court notes that
Google Spain and Google Inc. brought separate actions against that decision before the Audiencia Nacional (National High Court). The Audiencia Nacional joined the actions. 
That court states in the order for reference that the actions raise the question of what obligations are owed by operators of search engines to protect personal data of persons concerned who do not wish that certain information, which is published on third parties’ websites and contains personal data relating to them that enable that information to be linked to them, be located, indexed and made available to internet users indefinitely. The answer to that question depends on the way in which Directive 95/46 must be interpreted in the context of these technologies, which appeared after the directive’s publication. 
In those circumstances, the Audiencia Nacional decided to stay the proceedings and to refer the following questions to the Court for a preliminary ruling.
It concludes that
processing of personal data, such as that at issue in the main proceedings, carried out by the operator of a search engine is liable to affect significantly the fundamental rights to privacy and to the protection of personal data when the search by means of that engine is carried out on the basis of an individual’s name, since that processing enables any internet user to obtain through the list of results a structured overview of the information relating to that individual that can be found on the internet — information which potentially concerns a vast number of aspects of his private life and which, without the search engine, could not have been interconnected or could have been only with great difficulty — and thereby to establish a more or less detailed profile of him. Furthermore, the effect of the interference with those rights of the data subject is heightened on account of the important role played by the internet and search engines in modern society, which render the information contained in such a list of results ubiquitous (see, to this effect, Joined Cases C‑509/09 and C‑161/10 eDate Advertising and Others EU:C:2011:685, paragraph 45). 
In the light of the potential seriousness of that interference, it is clear that it cannot be justified by merely the economic interest which the operator of such an engine has in that processing. However, inasmuch as the removal of links from the list of results could, depending on the information at issue, have effects upon the legitimate interest of internet users potentially interested in having access to that information, in situations such as that at issue in the main proceedings a fair balance should be sought in particular between that interest and the data subject’s fundamental rights under Articles 7 and 8 of the Charter. Whilst it is true that the data subject’s rights protected by those articles also override, as a general rule, that interest of internet users, that balance may however depend, in specific cases, on the nature of the information in question and its sensitivity for the data subject’s private life and on the interest of the public in having that information, an interest which may vary, in particular, according to the role played by the data subject in public life. 
Following the appraisal of the conditions for the application of Article 12(b) and subparagraph (a) of the first paragraph of Article 14 of Directive 95/46 which is to be carried out when a request such as that at issue in the main proceedings is lodged with it, the supervisory authority or judicial authority may order the operator of the search engine to remove from the list of results displayed following a search made on the basis of a person’s name links to web pages published by third parties containing information relating to that person, without an order to that effect presupposing the previous or simultaneous removal of that name and information — of the publisher’s own accord or following an order of one of those authorities — from the web page on which they were published. 
As has been established in paragraphs 35 to 38 of the present judgment, inasmuch as the data processing carried out in the context of the activity of a search engine can be distinguished from and is additional to that carried out by publishers of websites and affects the data subject’s fundamental rights additionally, the operator of the search engine as the controller in respect of that processing must ensure, within the framework of its responsibilities, powers and capabilities, that that processing meets the requirements of Directive 95/46, in order that the guarantees laid down by the directive may have full effect. 
Given the ease with which information published on a website can be replicated on other sites and the fact that the persons responsible for its publication are not always subject to European Union legislation, effective and complete protection of data users could not be achieved if the latter had to obtain first or in parallel the erasure of the information relating to them from the publishers of websites. 
Furthermore, the processing by the publisher of a web page consisting in the publication of information relating to an individual may, in some circumstances, be carried out ‘solely for journalistic purposes’ and thus benefit, by virtue of Article 9 of Directive 95/46, from derogations from the requirements laid down by the directive, whereas that does not appear to be so in the case of the processing carried out by the operator of a search engine. It cannot therefore be ruled out that in certain circumstances the data subject is capable of exercising the rights referred to in Article 12(b) and subparagraph (a) of the first paragraph of Article 14 of Directive 95/46 against that operator but not against the publisher of the web page. 
Finally, it must be stated that not only does the ground, under Article 7 of Directive 95/46, justifying the publication of a piece of personal data on a website not necessarily coincide with that which is applicable to the activity of search engines, but also, even where that is the case, the outcome of the weighing of the interests at issue to be carried out under Article 7(f) and subparagraph (a) of the first paragraph of Article 14 of the directive may differ according to whether the processing carried out by the operator of a search engine or that carried out by the publisher of the web page is at issue, given that, first, the legitimate interests justifying the processing may be different and, second, the consequences of the processing for the data subject, and in particular for his private life, are not necessarily the same. 
Indeed, since the inclusion in the list of results, displayed following a search made on the basis of a person’s name, of a web page and of the information contained on it relating to that person makes access to that information appreciably easier for any internet user making a search in respect of the person concerned and may play a decisive role in the dissemination of that information, it is liable to constitute a more significant interference with the data subject’s fundamental right to privacy than the publication on the web page.
In the light of all the foregoing considerations, the answer to Question 2(c) and (d) is that Article 12(b) and subparagraph (a) of the first paragraph of Article 14 of Directive 95/46 are to be interpreted as meaning that, in order to comply with the rights laid down in those provisions and in so far as the conditions laid down by those provisions are in fact satisfied, the operator of a search engine is obliged to remove from the list of results displayed following a search made on the basis of a person’s name links to web pages, published by third parties and containing information relating to that person, also in a case where that name or information is not erased beforehand or simultaneously from those web pages, and even, as the case may be, when its publication in itself on those pages is lawful. ...
As the data subject may, in the light of his fundamental rights under Articles 7 and 8 of the Charter, request that the information in question no longer be made available to the general public by its inclusion in such a list of results, it should be held, as follows in particular from paragraph 81 of the present judgment, that those rights override, as a rule, not only the economic interest of the operator of the search engine but also the interest of the general public in finding that information upon a search relating to the data subject’s name. However, that would not be the case if it appeared, for particular reasons, such as the role played by the data subject in public life, that the interference with his fundamental rights is justified by the preponderant interest of the general public in having, on account of inclusion in the list of results, access to the information in question.