European High Court Spanks Google

Europe’s highest court just gave ordinary people the right to challenge Google over “irrelevant” or outdated search results. The court ruled today that individuals could ask Google to remove such search results associated with someone's name.

The case stems from a request by a Spanish citizen to remove information about the repossession of his home 16 years ago. The man successfully argued before the European Court of Justice (ECJ) that the outdated search results infringed on his right to privacy.

The ECJ ruled that individuals have the right to approach search companies like Google directly to request removal of information and, when the request is denied, "bring the matter before the competent authorities" to obtain, under certain conditions, the removal of questionable links from the list of search results.

If that wasn’t bad enough for search engine operators, the court also ruled that operators are responsible for any personal data it processes, even if that data appears on web pages published by third parties. In short, this means search engine operators are responsible for any information generated about individuals through search.

The Right To Be Forgotten

During the litigation, Google tried in vain to argue that it only provides links to the information and that it was not responsible for the information itself.

In a statement to the media, Google noted it was “disappointed” by the ruling and said that it would take time to “analyze the implications.”

The ruling underscores the current European Union protection directive that gives people the so-called “right to be forgotten.” It is also possible that a new directive now under consideration will specifically state this in an abbreviated form.

The EU justice commissioner, Viviane Reding, welcomed the court's decision, saying it was a clear victory for the protection of the personal data of Europeans. It confirms the need to bring today's data protection rules from the "digital stone age" to today's modern computing world, she said in a post on Facebook.

What the ruling doesn’t do, however, is indicate how this “right” might actually be applied. Its many critics, including the Index on Censorship, argue the ruling could have a negative effective on the freedom of information — including allowing people to have legitimate information removed, simply because they don't like it.

The ruling only apples to the EU and it seems unlikely that a similar court case would have any chance of success in other geographies, particularly in the US.

How Google responds to the ruling also remains to be seen. Because the ECJ is Europe’s highest court, there is no chance of an appeal.

Bad, Bad Google

It is also possible that Google will simply move the offending data offshore to a location outside of the EU and continue business as usual. Technically, any ruling by the ECJ must be applied in the member countries of the EU.

However, Google wields considerable economic power in Europe — equivalent to that of a small country. It provides thousands of jobs across the EU, so it is unlikely that any government is going to jeopardize that by pressuring Google to comply with the ECJ ruling.

What is more likely in the current economic climate is that governments will agree in principal, but play dumb when it comes to the practical application of the ruling.

One final thought that might be kept in mind — and one that we have come across on many occasions — is how much private information web users are prepared to give in exchange for a superior customer experience.

In January, IBM-sponsored research revealed at the National Retailers Federation conference showed the number of people who are willing to share their GPS coordinates with retailers has doubled in the past year to 36 percent. Another 38 percent of consumers are prepared to provide mobile numbers to receive text messages, while another 32 percent are prepared to share their social media handles.

That’s a lot of information to share just to get a better deal or better consumer information on the web. It also shows many web users are prepared for some kind of trade-off between privacy and better online experiences.

If the EU has given Google a virtual spanking and sent it into the corner to think about its actions, the question remains: Who really cares? Probably not Google — and probably not many Google users.