The Court of Justice’s seminal decision in Google Spain (2014) represented more the beginning rather than the endpoint of specifying the European data protection obligations of search engines when indexing material from the web and, as importantly, ensuring adherence to this.
In light of its over 90% market share of search, this issue largely concerns Google (even Bing and Yahoo come in a very distant second and third place). To its credit, Google signalled an early willingness to comply with Google Spain. At the same time, however, it construed this narrowly. Google argued that it only had to remove specified URLs links following ex post demands from individual European citizens and/or residents (exercising the right to erasure (A. 12c) and or objection (A. 14)), only as regards searches made under their name, only on European-badged search searches (e.g. .uk, .es) and even if the processing violated European data protection standards not if the processing was judged to be in the ʻpublic interestʼ.
It also indicated that it would inform the Webmasters of the ʻoriginalʼ content when de-listing took place (although it signalled that it would stop short of its usual practice of providing a similar notification to individual users of its services, opting instead for a generic notice only).
In the subsequent two and a half years, Google’s approach has remained in broad terms relatively stable (although from early 2015 it did stop notifying Webmasters when de-listing material from malicious porn sites (p. 29) and from early 2016 it has deployed (albeit imperfect) geolocation technology to block the return of de-listing results when using any of version of the Google search engine (e.g. .com) from the European country from where the demand was lodged).
Many (although not all) of these limitations are potentially suspect under European data protection, and indeed private litigants have (successfully and unsuccessfully) already brought a number of challenges. No doubt partly reflecting their very limited resources, European Data Protection Authorities (DPAs) have adopted a selective approach, targeting only those issues which they see as the most critical. Indeed, the Article 29 Working Party November 2014 Guidelines focussed principally on two concerns:
- Firstly, that the geographical scope of de-listing was too narrow. To ensure “effective and complete protection” of individual data subjects, it was necessary that de-listing be “effective on all relevant domains, including .com”.
- Secondly, that communication to third parties of data concerning de-listing identifiable to particular data subjects should be both very limited and subject to strong discipline. Routine communication “to original webmasters that results relating to their content had been delisted” was simply unlawful and, whilst in “particularly difficult cases” it might in principle be legitimate to contact such publishers prior to making a delisting decision, even here search engines must then “take all necessary measures to properly safeguard the rights of the affected data subject”.
Since the release of the Guidelines, the French DPA has famously (or infamously depending on your perspective!) adopted a strict interpretation of the first concern requiring de-listing on a completely global scale and fining Google €100K for failing to do this. This action has now been appealed before the French Conseil d’État and much attention has been given to this including by Google itself. In contrast, much less publicity has been given to the issue of third party communication.
Nevertheless, in September 2016 the Spanish DPA issued a Resolution fining Google €150K for disclosing information identifiable to three data subjects to Webmasters and ordered it to adopt measures to prevent such practices reoccurring. An internal administrative appeal lodged by Google against this has now been rejected and a challenge in court now seems inevitable. This piece explores the background to, nature of and justification for this important regulatory development.
The Determinations Made in the Spanish Resolution
Apart from the fact that they had formally complained, there was nothing unusual in the three individual cases analysed in the Spanish Resolution. Google had simply followed its usual practice of informing Webmasters that under data protection law specified URLs had been deindexed against a particular (albeit not directly specified) individual name. Google sought to defend this practice on four separate grounds:
- Firstly, it argued that the information provided to Webmasters did not constitute personal data at all. In contrast, the Spanish regulator argued that in those cases where the URL led to a webpage in which only one natural person was mentioned then directly identifiable data had been reported, whilst even in those cases where several people were mentioned the information was still indirectly identifiable since a simple procedure (e.g. conducting a search on names linked to the webpage in question) would render the information fully identified. (Google’s argument here in any case seemed to be in tension with its practice since September 2015 of inviting contacted Webmasters to notify Google of any reason why the de-listing decision should be reconsidered – this would only really make sense if the Webmaster could in fact deduce what specific de-listing had in fact taken place).
- Second, it argued that, since its de-listing form stated that it “may provide details to webmaster(s) of the URLs that have been removed from our search results”, any dissemination had taken place with the individual’s consent. Drawing especially on European data protection’s requirement that consent be “freely given” (A. 2 (h)) this was also roundly rejected. In using the form to exercise their legal rights, individuals were simply made to accept as a fait accompli that such dissemination might take place.
- Third, it argued that dissemination was nevertheless a “compatible” (A. 6 (1) (b)) processing of the data given the initial purpose of its collection, finding a legal basis as “necessary” for the “legitimate interests” (A. 7 (f)) of Webmasters regarding this processing (e.g. to contact Google for a reconsideration). The Spanish DPA doubted that Webmasters could have any legitimate interest here since “search engines do not recognize a legal right of publishers to have their contents indexed and displayed, or displayed in a particular order”, the Court of Justice had only referenced that the interests of the search engine itself and Internet users who might receive the information were engaged and, furthermore, had been explicit that de-listing rights applied irrespective of whether the information was erased at source or even if publication there remained lawful. In any case, it emphasized that any such interest had (as article 7 (f) explicitly states) to be balanced with the rights and freedoms of data subjects which the Court had emphasized must be “effective and complete” in this context. In contrast, Google’s practice of essentially unsafeguarded disclosure of the data to Webmasters could result in the effective extinguishment of the data subject’s rights since Webmasters had variously republished the deindexed page against another URL, published lists of all URLs deindexed or even published a specific news story on the de-listing decision.
- Fourth, Google argued that its practice was an instantiation of the data subject’s right to obtain from a controller “notification to third parties to whom the data have been disclosed of any rectification, erasure or blocking” carried out in compliance with the right to erasure “unless this provides impossible or involves a disproportionate effort” (A. 12 (c)). The Spanish regulator pointed out that since the data in question had originally been received from rather than disclosed to Webmasters, this provision was not even materially engaged. In any case, Google’s interpretation of it was in conflict with its purpose which was to ensure the full effectiveness of the data subject’s right to erasure.
Having established an infringement of the law, the Spanish regulator had to consider whether to pursue this as an illegal communication of data (judged ʻvery seriousʼ under Spanish data law) or only as a breach of secrecy (which is judged merely as ʻseriousʼ). In the event, it plumped for the latter and issued a fine of €150K which was in the midrange of that set out for ʻseriousʽ infringements. As previously noted, it also injuncted Google to adopt measures to prevent reoccurrence of these legal failings and required that these be communicated to the Spanish DPA.
This Spanish DPA’s action tackles a systematic practice which has every potential to fundamentally undermine practical enjoyment of rights to de-listing and is therefore at least as significant as the ongoing regulatory developments in France which relate to the geographical scope of these rights. It was entirely right to find that personal data had been disseminated, that this had been done without consent, that the processing had nothing to do with the right (which, in any case, is not an obligation) of data subjects to have third parties notified in certain circumstances and that this processing was “incompatible” with the initial purpose of data collection which was to ensure data subject’s legal rights to de-listing.
It is true that the Resolution was too quick to dismiss the idea that original Webmasters do have a “legitimate interests” in guarding against unfair de-listings of content. Even in the absence of a de jure right to such listings, these interests are grounded in their fundamental right to “impart” information (and ideas), an aspect of freedom of expression (ECHR, art. 10; EU Charter, art. 11). In principle, these rights and interests justify search engines making contact with original Webmasters, at the least as the Working Party itself indicated in particularly difficult de-listing cases.
However, even here dissemination must (as the Working Party also emphasized) properly safeguard the rights and interest of data subjects. At the least this should mean that, prior to any dissemination, a search engine should conclude a binding and effectively policeable legal contract prohibiting Webmasters from disseminating the data in identifiable form. (In the absence of this, those Webmasters out of European jurisdiction or engaged in special/journalistic expression cannot necessarily be themselves criticized for making use of the information received in other ways).
In stark contrast to this, Google currently engages in blanket and essentially unsafeguarded reporting to Webmasters, a practice which has resulted in a breakdown of effective protection for data subjects not just in Spain but also in other European jurisdictions such as the UK – see here and here. Having been put on such clear notice by this Spanish action, it is to be hoped the Google will seriously modify its practices. If not, then regulators would have every right to deal with this in the future as a (yet more serious) illegal and intentional communication of personal data.
Future Spanish Regulatory Vistas
The cases investigated by the Spanish DPA noted in this Resolution also involved the potential dissemination of data to the Lumen transparency database (formally Chilling Effects) which is hosted in the United States, the potential for subsequent publication of identifiable data on its publicly accessible database and even the potential for a specific notification to be provided to Google users conducting relevant name searches detailing that “[i]n response to a legal requirement sent to Google, we have removed [X] result(s) from this page. If you wish, you can get more information about this requirement on LumenDatabase.org.”
This particular investigation, however, failed to uncover enough information on these important matters. Google was adamant that it had not yet begun providing information to Lumen in relation to data protection claims post-Google Spain, but stated that it was likely to do so in the future in some form. Meanwhile, it indicated that the specific Lumen notifications which were found on name searches regarding two of the claimants concerned pre-Google Spain claims variously made under defamation, civil privacy law and also data protection. (Even putting to one side the data protection claim, such practices would still amount to a processing of personal data and also highlight the often marginal and sometimes arbitrary distinctions between these very related legal causes of action).
Given these complications, the Spanish regulator decided not to proceed directly regarding these matters but rather open more wide-ranging investigatory proceedings concerning both Google’s practices in relation to disclosure to Lumen and also notification provided to search users. Both sets of investigatory proceedings are ongoing. Such continuing work highlights the vital need for active regulatory engagement to ensure that the individual rights of data subjects are effectively secured. Only in this way will basic European data protection norms continue to ʻcatch upʼ not just with Google but with developments online generally.
David Erdos, University Lecturer in Law and the Open Society, Faculty of Law & WYNG Fellow in Law, Trinity Hall, University of Cambridge
(I am grateful to Cristina Pauner Chulvi and Jef Ausloos for their thoughts on a draft of this piece.)