Google and EU Privacy Rights Ruling

Remembering Privacy Rights, Europe Requires Google to Forget Us

Lisa Bloom, News, Politics, Privacy, Rights, Technology

While in America corporations are people, money is speech and the privacy rights of ordinary citizens are becoming a thing of the past, Europe has a different approach, regularly protecting the rights of its citizens, especially in the area of personal privacy. In the latest case from the European Court of Human Rights, people who have been maligned online can petition Google (and, presumably, other search engines) to remove the offensive listings from search results.

What does this mean exactly?

Let’s take an example. You Google your name and up pops, a website created by your ex that says you’re a liar, cheater, and scum of the earth. You did cheat on her, but the rest is untrue. And it all happened ten years ago. You wish she’d move on. What happens now?

If you are in Europe, you can ask Google to remove this site from its search results. The website will remain up. Google doesn’t have the power to take down web sites. But it does have the power to remove them from its search results if the listing is “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant” – a broad standard. Note that falsity is not a requirement. Even truthful information that you don’t like can be the basis of a removal request.

Google is going to be bombarded with requests. The problem is so huge that an entire industry of reputation consultants (like already toils daily to clean up those negative search results that pop up for many prominent people. (My law firm does a fair amount of this kind of work, sending cease and desist letters and litigating defamation and invasion of privacy cases on behalf of people who are the subject of unfair attacks or privacy violations online.) Decisions on whether information should be removed from search engines depend “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.”

If you’re running for president, the public has a heightened interest in you, and the listing will likely remain up. If you’re a private citizen, and the listing is old, and intrusive, is removed from Europe’s Google listings. Fair enough.

What about free speech rights?

The American First Amendment does not, of course, apply in Europe. Hate speech, for example, is highly regulated in Europe, while it’s mostly permissible in the US.

The ECHR has simply decided that the protection of individuals’ right of privacy outweighs the public’s interest in knowing even true facts about others. It’s likely American courts would rule the other way. The ECHR decision cannot be appealed.

Already Google is being deluged with request from politicians to delete embarrassing search results, from criminals who want their criminal history “forgotten” and many others. The floodgates have opened. Google is surely scrambling to respond without getting into further legal trouble.

My opinion is that this is comeuppance for a giant corporation that has long been unsympathetic to the harm it caused many people by listing misleading and damaging information about them. Many people have complaints that Google was unresponsive to their requests to take down listings. The techies at Google could have done better, and the public outcry, at least in Europe, led to this result. They’ll now be forced to devise a streamlined system where individual privacy rights can be better respected, probably via an online form.

I’m pleased to see there is still a place on earth where privacy rights matter, and where the rights of the individual are protected against incursions by a giant corporation that profits off their data.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Avvo.

Photo credit: AHMAD FAIZAL YAHYA /