Google Loses ‘Right to be Forgotten’ Case
The UK High Court has ruled against Google in one of two cases where plaintiffs accused the search engine of infringing their “right to be forgotten” for crimes they committed over 10 years ago.
The internet company was sued by two separate businessmen who both claimed that Google’s refusal to remove search results relating to their “spent” convictions amounted to misuse of private information under EU data protection laws.
Mr Justice Warby upheld one of the businessmen’s claims relating to published data on his 10-year-old conviction for intercepting communications.
However, regarding the second man’s more serious offence of conspiring to account falsely, Justice Warby refused to order Google to de-index online reports.
The distinction was drawn on the basis that the former plaintiff had “shown remorse” after serving six months in jail for his crime, whilst the latter, who served a sentence of four years, had not changed and continued to “mislead the public.”
The legal challenges are the first of their kind to be decided in England. They follow a 2014 EU Court ruling against Google Spain, which set the “right to be forgotten” precedent in EU law.
Jim Killock from digital rights campaign group the Open Rights Group, explains:
“The right to be forgotten is meant to apply to information that is no longer relevant but disproportionately impacts a person.”
“The Court will have to balance the public’s right to access the historical record, the precise impacts on the person, and the public interest,” he said.
Balancing public interest and the rights of individuals
In the Spanish case, EU law took a stance between the competing concerns of individual privacy and public interest towards the rights of the individual, ruling that historic personal information, if now “irrelevant”, should legally be removeable on the individual’s request.
Since then, Google says it has removed 800,000 pages from search results and received 2.4 million “right to be forgotten” requests.
Speaking after the latest UK cases, a spokesperson for Google said: “We work hard to comply with the right to be forgotten, but we take great care not to remove search results that are in the public interest.”
“We are pleased that the Court recognised our efforts in this area, and we will respect the judgements they have made in this case,” the spokesperson added.
Lawful handling of information relating to citizens’ prior criminal convictions was previously covered in UK law by The Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974, which recognises the notion that a person’s criminal conviction is “spent” and becomes irrelevant to their character after a certain amount of time.
However, following the rise of the internet and the ubiquity of powerful search engines like Google, case law has been working to adapt and modernise laws to fairly reflect the reality of data access in modern life.
Lawyers approve UK courts’ ‘common sense approach’ to new digital right
UK lawyers welcomed the court ruling, with one commentator saying it reflected a “common sense” attitude, whereby: “The internet should not be used as a constant reminder of what you used to be but no longer are. But if you are trying to hide your past so that you can repeat your offence, the court will not play ball.”
As online presence and digital information becomes an ever more important part of peoples’ professional and personal lives, laws like the “right to be forgotten” recognise a shift, whereby greater protections are required for individual’s online identities.
Legal scholar Alessandro Mantelero says that the right to be forgotten has developed to legally enforce the right of individuals to “determine the development of their life in an autonomous way, without being perpetually or periodically stigmatised as a consequence of a specific action performed in the past.”
Yahoo, Facebook, YouTube and Bing all now offer forms for users to make delinking requests.
Whilst some cases relate to petty crime convictions, many involve users who wish to keep non-legal but sensitive personal information out of their online presence.
In 2015, The Guardian found that “95% of Google privacy requests are from citizens out to protect personal and private information – not criminals, politicians and public figures.”
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