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European Court Fixes The Embarrassing Google Results Problem

By William Peacock, Esq. on May 16, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Europe. It's a fine place -- except for France.

Just kidding. Maybe.

The European Court of Justice, which has precedential force over the entire 28-country European Union, just made a controversial ruling that prioritizes personal privacy over an open and honest (if not public-shaming) Internet. And it's all because of the French -- and some Spanish dude.

An Embarrassing Home Repossession

Mario Costeja Gonzalez, of Spain, has an unremarkable story. Many years ago, his home was repossessed and auctioned off. Though it was many years ago, he is still, to this day, so embarrassed by that fact that he demanded that it be scrubbed from Google's search results.

EU Data-Protection Directive and Privacy Rights

According to The Atlantic, he got exactly what he sought. The ECJ, relying upon the EU's data-protection directive and Charter of Fundamental Rights, held that Gonzalez's privacy rights trumped Google's economic interests and the public's interest in having access to the information in the search results.

It's All France's Fault

It's"the right to be forgotten," a pro-privacy and anti-transparency notion that ordinary citizens should control their personal data.

"If an individual no longer wants his personal data to be processed or stored by a data controller, and if there is no legitimate reason for keeping it, the data should be removed from their system," the court held.

The Atlantic points to a law review article by Professor Jeffrey Rosen that pins the origins of this notion on French law, "le droit à l'oubli -- or the 'right of oblivion' -- a right that allows a convicted criminal who has served his time and been rehabilitated to object to the publication of the facts of his conviction and incarceration."

Privacy Trumps Press, Speech, Everything

A European Commission memo argues that the right "is about empowering individuals, not about erasing past events or restricting freedom of the press."

But the question is, how far does this go? The Atlantic asks: what about the court opinion itself, an important precedent for privacy rights that discusses Gonzalez's repo in detail. What about the Atlantic article itself? What about this article? Does Google simply add a filter to delete everything with certain keywords from its results? Does it start censoring certain parts of pages to keep the keywords out, but the precedent and news in?

Varying Perspectives

To the Europeans, this all makes sense. To us, reactions vary from this is a slippery slope to a Forbes article that predicts, doom, gloom, and irrelevance for Europe from here on out. A Canadian perspective, from The Globe and Mail, interestingly enough, argues that the law "isn't perfect" but emphasizes that it is a balancing act, and that since companies are profiting on our data, they might as well have to respect our privacy wishes.

We've all heard stories about an unfortunate Google search result. What's worse: a censored Google or Internet shaming? Tweet your thoughts to us @FindLawLP.

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