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Some results may have been removed under data protection law in Europe. Learn more – Robin Hopkins

GoogleThis is the message that now regularly greets those using Google to search for information on named individuals. It relates, of course, to the CJEU’s troublesome Google Spain judgment of 13 May 2014.

I certainly wish to learn more.

So I take Google up on its educational offer and click through to its FAQ page, where the folks at Google tell me inter alia that

“Since this ruling was published on 13 May 2014, we’ve been working around the clock to comply. This is a complicated process because we need to assess each individual request and balance the rights of the individual to control his or her personal data with the public’s right to know and distribute information”.

The same page also leads me to the form on which I can ask Google to remove from its search results certain URLs about me. I need to fill in gaps like this: “This URL is about me because… This page should not be included as a search result because…” 

This is indeed helpful in terms of process, but I want to understand more about the substance of decision-making. How does (and/or should) Google determine whether or not to accede to my request? Perhaps understandably (as Google remarks, this is a complicated business on which the dust is yet to settle), Google doesn’t tell me much about that just yet.

So I look to the obvious source – the CJEU’s judgment itself – for guidance. Here I learn that I can in principle ask that “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant” information about me not be returned through a Google search. I also get some broad – and quite startling – rules of thumb, for example at paragraph 81, which tells me this:

“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.”

So it seems that, in general (and subject to the sensitivity of the information and my prominence in public life), my privacy rights trump Google’s economic rights and other people’s rights to find information about me in this way. So the CJEU has provided some firm steers on points of principle.

But still I wish to learn more about how these principles will play out in practice. Media reports in recent weeks have told us about the volume of ‘right to be forgotten’ requests received by Google.

The picture this week has moved on from volumes to particulars. In the past few days, we have begun to learn how Google’s decisions filter back to journalists responsible for the content on some of the URLs which objectors pasted into the forms they sent to Google. We learn that journalists and media organisations, for example, are now being sent messages like this:

“Notice of removal from Google Search: we regret to inform you that we are no longer able to show the following pages from your website in response to certain searches on European versions of Google.”

Unsurprisingly, some of those journalists find this puzzling and/or objectionable. Concerns have been ventilated in the last day or two, most notably by the BBC’s Robert Peston (who feels that, through teething problems with the new procedures, he has been ‘cast into oblivion’) and The Guardian’s James Ball (who neatly illustrates some of the oddities of the new regime). See also The Washington Post’s roundup of UK media coverage.

That coverage suggests that the Google Spain ruling – which made no overt mention of free expression rights under Article 10 ECHR – has started to bite into the media’s freedom. The Guardian’s Chris Moran, however, has today posted an invaluable piece clarifying some misconceptions about the right to be forgotten. Academic commentators such as Paul Bernal have also offered shrewd insights into the fallout from Google Spain.

So, by following the trail from Google’s pithy new message, I am able to learn a fair amount about the tenor of this post-Google Spain world.

Inevitably, however, given my line of work, I am interested in the harder edges of enforcement and litigation: in particular, if someone objects to the outcome of a ‘please forget me’ request to Google, what exactly can they do about it?

On such questions, it is too early to tell. Google says on its FAQ page that “we look forward to working closely with data protection authorities and others over the coming months as we refine our approach”. For its part, the ICO tells us that it and its EU counterparts are working hard on figuring this out. Its newsletter from today says for example that:

“The ICO and its European counterparts on the Article 29 Working Party are working on guidelines to help data protection authorities respond to complaints about the removal of personal information from search engine results… The recommendations aim to ensure a consistent approach by European data protection authorities in response to complaints when takedown requests are refused by the search engine provider.”

So for the moment, there remain lots of unanswered questions. For example, the tone of the CJEU’s judgment is that DPA rights will generally defeat economic rights and the public’s information rights. But what about a contest between two individuals’ DPA rights?

Suppose, for example, that I am an investigative journalist with substantial reputational and career investment in articles about a particular individual who then persuades Google to ensure that my articles do not surface in EU Google searches for his name? Those articles also contain my name, work and opinions, i.e. they also contain my personal data. In acceding to the ‘please forget me’ request without seeking my input, could Google be said to have processed my personal data unfairly, whittling away my online personal and professional output (at least to the extent that the relevant EU Google searches are curtailed)? Could this be said to cause me damage or distress? If so, can I plausibly issue a notice under s. 10 of the DPA, seek damages under s. 13, or ask the ICO to take enforcement action under s. 40?

The same questions could arise, for example, if my personal backstory is heavily entwined with that of another person who persuades Google to remove from its EU search results articles discussing both of us – that may be beneficial for the requester, but detrimental to me in terms of the adequacy of personal data about me which Google makes available to the interested searcher.

So: some results may have been removed under data protection law in Europe, and I do indeed wish to learn more. But I will have to wait.

This article originally appeared on the Panopticon Blog and is reproduced with permission and thanks

4 Comments

  1. Mike Sivier

    Reblogged this on Vox Political and commented:
    Reblogged for the sake of other researchers who may find some curious messages popping up.

  2. beastrabban

    Reblogged this on Beastrabban’s Weblog and commented:
    Robin Hopkins here discusses some of the complex issues involved in the Google Spain judgement, which ruled that people have the right to request certain online information about them be removed or forgotten. As a result, some professional journalists, such as Robert Peston, have seen their work blocked by Google on the Continent, because someone has made such a request regarding articles written by them.

  3. Smiling Carcass

    Reblogged this on SMILING CARCASS'S TWO-PENNETH and commented:
    I think this is wrong; Google is a search engine and if it produces results you are not happy with, then the issue is with the website owner/administrator, not Google, much in the same way that my internet provider blocks torrent sites. There are many legitimate torrents and the issue is with that site; the job of my internet provider is to give me what I pay for- access to the internet. If I use that access illegally, the issue is with me and/or the site that hosts the illegal content.

    I take the view this is the ruling elite controlling a free internet and we are on a slippery slope to censorship.

  4. amnesiaclinic

    Reblogged this on amnesiaclinic and commented:
    I agree with smiling carcass – why should google, a search engine, be in the business of censoring the internet? A very slippery slope.

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