What right to be forgotten?

MAJOR KERFUFFELS broke out on 13 May when the Court of Justice of the European Union ruled that a Spanish citizen had the right to demand that Google remove references to his past financial troubles. Reading the initial coverage, you'd think that some brand-new right had been created for the benefit of the nefarious and intended to make journalists' work impossible.

Immediately after the ruling, a number of UK news outlets ran identical stories about how those who had asked to have information on them de-indexed included a paedophile and a Member of Parliament (not alleging they were the same person, we hasten to add). While the journalists who had bylines on these stories cannot of course discuss their confidential sources, it is clear that there is only one possible source for this information.

Google responded to the ruling by putting up a form for those wanting to have information about them removed from its indexes - demanding proof of identity. On 2 May it said it had received 41,000 requests - and that these included a politician with a murky past, a convicted paedophile and a man who had attempted to murder his family.

Some freedom of expression campaigners immediately piled in in support of Google and others who would have to do extra work as a result of the ruling. Wikipedia high heid mon Jimmy Wales called it "one of the most wide-sweeping internet censorship rulings".

And the facts? It was Google that brought proceedings against the Spanish data protection agency, seeking to be exempt from European laws. These include data protection law, under which the agency had ruled that the information Google was linking to was, among other things, out of date under existing EU and Spanish law.

The "right to be forgotten" is something rather different: it is the subject of currently rather diffuse debate in the European Parliament about possible changes to the law. Other existing laws that could cause information to be de-indexed include the UK's Rehabilitation of Offenders Act of 1974, which is generally held to be a good thing on balance.

There is also a connection to authors' rights: in some countries including France authors have a droit de repentir - a right to withdraw a work. The Spanish case did not concern a document in which the plaintiff held authors' rights, but some future cases will.

The threat to journalism seems to the Freelance to be moderate. Data protection authorities and national courts will ultimately be responsible - and have a duty to balance data protection with the public interest.

The threat to Google seems to be more that it might be subject to European tax laws, and to the recent German law giving publishers (not, sadly, journalists) a right to payment for material presented through its news indexes. Other search engines are available.

  • Note to editors and writers: the CJEU is an EU body, tasked with ruling whether member states' implementation of EU law complies with its requirements. It is completely separate from the European Court of Human Rights, which is not a body of the 27-member EU but is rather administered by the 44-member Council of Europe. Please insert this fact into the brain of every other editor you meet, by any means necessary.
Last modified: 15 Jun 2014 - © 2014 contributors
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