EU's Top Court Endorses Censorship of Embarrassing Facts

In the name of privacy, Europe expurgates the Internet.

Since the European Union's top court endorsed "the right to be forgotten" last week, Google has received more than 1,000 requests to remove links to embarrassing information from its search results. BBC News reports that the complainants have included a suspended university lecturer, an actor who had an affair with a teenager, a politician irked by an article about his behavior while in office, and "a man who tried to kill his family."

According to the European Court of Justice (ECJ), national data protection agencies and judges are supposed to weigh the competing interests in each of these cases and decide which will prevail: the right to be forgotten or the right to know. This misbegotten decision illustrates the threat to freedom of speech posed by an amorphous, free-floating right to privacy, unmoored from contracts, property rights, or constitutional restrictions on government action.

The case involved a Spanish lawyer, Mario Costeja Gonzalez, who was angry that results from Google searches on his name included links to newspaper pages from 1998 that carried an announcement of a real estate auction aimed at paying off his social security debts. Since his tax problem had been resolved years before, he felt that making information about it available online was unfair and misleading.

In 2010 Costeja Gonzalez filed a complaint with the Spanish Data Protection Agency, asking that the newspaper, La Vanguardia, be required to remove or expurgate the pages and that Google be required to stop listing them in search results. The agency rejected the complaint against La Vanguardia, since publishing the auction announcement was legally justified, but ordered Google to comply with Costeja Gonzalez's request. 

Google appealed to Spain's National High Court, which sought guidance from the ECJ. Applying a 1995 E.U. directive aimed at protecting the "right to privacy with respect to the processing of personal data," the court said search engine operators can be forced to expunge references to accurate, legally published information that people would prefer to keep hidden, even when the information remains online.

The ECJ focused on search engines, as opposed to original publishers, because they engage in "data processing" and because they make unfavorable facts more accessible. But the logic of the ruling covers any sort of aggregation, including newspapers' archives of their own content, while the logic of the alleged right to be forgotten applies to any publicly available "personal data" (defined as "any information relating to an identified or identifiable natural person"), no matter where it is stored or how it is presented.

The standard for issuing a censorship order is whether the information is "inadequate," "irrelevant or no longer relevant," or "excessive" in light of the purposes for which it was collected. Although there might be "particular reasons" why information that people seek to suppress should remain available, the ECJ said, the collection of personal data affects "fundamental rights" that "override, as a rule, not only the economic interest of the operator of the search engine but also the interest of the general public in having access to that information."

The implications are sweeping. For any given political candidate, public official, job applicant, potential business partner, doctor, date, future son-in-law, or new neighbor, there will be many facts available online that are arguably relevant to important public or private interests—which means they are also arguably irrelevant.

Then there is the question of whether the interest at stake, whether it's evaluating a politician or avoiding yet another bad relationship, outweighs the research subject's interest in concealing facts that reflect poorly on him. This is a legal morass that invites arbitrary line drawing.

In the United States, the "right to be forgotten" would be a non-starter, since our Constitution guarantees freedom of speech, a principle that is incompatible with government decrees to send inconvenient truths down the memory hole. Anyone concerned about fundamental rights should think twice before letting the state decide what people need to know.

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  • Fist of Etiquette||

    In 2010 Costeja Gonzalez filed a complaint with the Spanish Data Protection Agency, asking that the newspaper, La Vanguardia, be required to remove or expurgate the pages and that Google be required to stop listing them in search results.

    Mission accomplished. No one will find out about Gonzalez's financial failures now.

    So, sure, Google will comply, since they no doubt have a physical presence in Europe, but what about other search engines without any such tie? Will DuckDuckGo give a crap about this? And if so, wouldn't European searchers just be trained eventually to "google" someone using a smaller name search engine?

  • Doctor Whom||

    Streisand effect? What's that?

    If Costeja González genuinely wanted to be forgotten, he would have kept his gob shut. The "right to be forgotten" is actually the right to have inconvenient facts hidden.

  • Ted S.||

    In 2010 Costeja Gonzalez filed a complaint with the Spanish Data Protection Agency, asking that the newspaper, La Vanguardia, be required to remove or expurgate the pages and that Google be required to stop listing them in search results. The agency rejected the complaint against La Vanguardia, since publishing the auction announcement was legally justified, but ordered Google to comply with Costeja Gonzalez's request.

    Google has a big pile of money the EU could get at in fines; La Vanguardia presumably doesn't. And Google is American, allowing the EU to get one of their acceptable bigotries on.

  • Rich||

    The standard for issuing a censorship order is whether the information is "inadequate," "irrelevant or no longer relevant," or "excessive" in light of the purposes for which it was collected.

    Well, that's certainly clear enough, as far as it goes. But they left out the crucial criteria of "frivolous" and "possibly offensive".

  • Pro Libertate||

  • Almanian!||

    *BOOM*

  • Pro Libertate||

    Mr Almanian! has forgotten the first lesson in How Not to be Seen.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    For his lawyer, Joaquín Muñoz, a key point in Tuesday's ruling was the recognition that search engines are involved in processing data. "When you search for something in Google, they don't scour the entire internet for you and then give you a result. They've stored links, organised them and they show them based on a criteria they've decided upon." This act of processing information confers upon them responsibilities in certain cases, he added. ...

    It's one of the many questions about the ruling to be answered in the days to come, said Muñoz. But on Tuesday he was content to bask in the idea that Abanlex, his tiny law firm based in Madrid, had taken on Google and won. "The resources Google has at their disposal aren't like those of any other citizens."

    I've heard that Joaquín Muñoz and Mario Costeja Gonzalez have, allegedly, from time to time gone down to the pastures of Spain to engage in sexual intercourse with several ovine creatures. As of now, they have not provided evidence to dispute this allegation, as such, it is entirely proper to speculate as to the truth of these allegations.

  • Rich||

    Indeed, this allegation is one of many facts available online that are arguably relevant to important public or private interests.

  • Almanian!||

    Yo, fuck tha EU

  • Rich||

    For his lawyer, Joaquín Muñoz, a key point in Tuesday's ruling was the recognition that search engines are involved in processing data.

    "Ah, HA!!"

  • DJF||

    Can I use this right to have the EU forget about me?

  • The Late P Brooks||

    I wonder if this is in any way related to American AGs aggressively extorting large settlements from European banks.

    Maybe we're on the verge of a huge new form of trade war. That would be nice.

  • Bee Tagger||

    This will all be moot when the NSA starts their own google.

  • JWatts||

    "right to be forgotten"

    George Orwell approves. The past should be forgotten whenever it's politically convenient to so.

  • Scarecrow Repair||

    It's nonsense like this that affirms my belief that statists defining characteristic is their loose grasp on reality. They firmly believe that passing laws solves problems, like waving Harry Potter's wand or rubbing a magic lamp. "So let it be written -- so let it be done."

    And when it both fails to fix the problem and creates new ones, they see no connection. Instead of fixing the old law, they see only opportunities to pass new ones with their own unintended consequences.

  • Mark22||

    I wouldn't bet on this being a "non-starter" in the US. After all, who would have thought that the trade and commerce clause would let the federal government prohibit you from growing your own wheat (or weed), or that the equal protection clause could be used to justify government-sponsored racial discrimination? When you can invent new "rights" out of thin air, courts can weigh those new rights against existing law, and the law becomes completely malleable. In Europe, all those weird decisions derive from nebulous rights to "human dignity and self-determination".

  • Christophe||

    Google should do the same thing they do for the DMCA:

    "Due to a court order (link to court order), we had to remove certain pages from our results."

    Put that at the top and now I get the list of things Mr. Gonzales doesn't want people to know.

  • je suis la lune||

    What constitutes embarrassing facts? Is a CEO embezzling one kajillion dollars an embarrassing fact? What the hell is wrong with the stupid people behind this...

  • Redmanfms||

    What the hell is wrong with the stupid people behind this...

    It's simple really, Europeans are, by and large, morons.

    Sadly, Americans are just moronic enough to think Europeans are worth emulating, therefore I see similar such rulings/legislation coming about here in the next 15-20 years (about the average time it takes Europe's stupid ideas to gain traction here).

  • Mark22||

    They're dangerous too: devastating religious wars, slavery, Napoleon, colonialism, imperialism, WWI, WWII, genocide, fascism, and communism were European crimes. All of those were justified by "rights", "science", and "philosophy". Neither Americans nor Asians have ever done anything comparable.

    (Note that genocide of American Indians and slavery in the Americas were the doings of European colonial powers; the US just inherited the mess.)

  • Response||

    Won't this pretty much put facebook out of business?

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