Google ruling an 'attack on freedom' says rights group

The Google search page

Index on Censorship says right to be removed from Google is 'chilling' and an attack on free expression

LAST UPDATED AT 14:28 ON Wed 14 May 2014

EUROPE'S highest court has ruled that Google must respond to individual requests to amend search results and remove links that are deemed "inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant", enshrining what has been called the "right to be forgotten".

The European Court of Justice (ECJ) declared that search engine operators, such as Google, are responsible for data on third-party websites that appears in their search results. But anti-censorship campaigners say that the law may have unintended consequences for internet freedom. But what will be the long-term effect? Read our briefing on the recent ruling and its likely effects.

What did the ECJ rule?
Hundreds of cases have been brought against Google by people demanding that the search engine remove links to stories about them, but the one the ECJ ruled on was referred from Spain.

Mario Costeja Gonzalez complained that a search for his name on Google came up with links to a newspaper article about him, originally printed in 1998. The article concerned a sale of his property to raise money to repay social security debts. He said that the matter had since been resolved and that Google should remove all links to the story.

Costeja successfully sued Google Inc and Google Spain in a Spanish court prompting Google to appeal to the ECJ. After hearing the case, the court in Luxembourg ruled in favour of Costeja.

What does the ruling mean?
In effect, the ruling means that if a web page can be found by searching for someone's name, then Google – or whichever search engine was used – is responsible for the contents of that page.

The ruling is a "strong decision in favour of privacy and individual rights", says Paul Bernal, a specialist in data privacy issues, writing for CNN.

According to the court an individual's fundamental rights should override "not only the economic interest of the search engine but also the interest of the general public in finding that information upon a search relating to the data subject's name".

What impact will the ruling have?
Bernal says that the ruling could have "chilling" effect on free speech and may have huge consequences for how search engines operate and how we all use the internet.

Free speech groups complain that giving individuals the right to intervene on what information can be served by search engines with no legal oversight "has worrying implications".

Jodie Ginsberg, chief executive of Index on Censorship says: "The court's decision is a retrograde move that misunderstands the role and responsibility of search engines and the wider internet. It should send chills down the spine of everyone in the European Union who believes in the crucial importance of free expression and freedom of information".

She adds: "This is akin to marching into a library and forcing it to pulp books."

What happens next?
Google could face a flood of legal actions seeking to enforce the ruling. In its leading article, The Times argues that the court's decision "casts organisations such as Google as the censors-in-chief of global information".

This could turn the internet into "a gigantic version of a Stalinist era Soviet photograph album, with people airbrushing their awkward pasts out of existence", the paper concludes.

The ruling could also have huge consequences for "anyone who publishes material online about individuals", such as news websites, the BBC's technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones notes.

Google may have been surprised and furious at the outcome, Cellan-Jones says, "but it isn't clear that the search firm can do anything about it". · 

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