Privacy Trumps Freedom of Information for Google in EU
The European Court of Justice on Tuesday ruled that Google can be forced to remove private citizens’ information from search results in the name of privacy. The court specifically held that Google and other search engines are “obliged to remove links to web pages that are published by third parties and contain information relating to a person from the list of results displayed following a search made on the basis of that person’s name.”
In making its decision, the court weighed the right to know with the right to privacy. The court observed that, depending on the information at issue, the search results could “have effects upon the legitimate interest of internet users potentially interested in having access to that information,” but that “a fair balance should be sought in particular between that interest and the data subject’s fundamental rights, in particular the right to privacy and the right to protection of personal data.”
The court held that, in striking a balance, a search engine must consider “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.” The court warned, however, that the interest of the public having access to the information may not be justified “by merely the economic interest which the operator of the engine has in the data processing.”
Google’s chairman Eric Schmidt stated that “Google believes having looked at the decision, which is binding, that the balance that was struck was wrong.” Nonetheless, an unnamed Google source stated that it will employ an “army of removal experts” across the 28 member states in order to comply with the ruling.
Google is not alone in its view that the EU court got it wrong. In an op-ed piece he wrote for the New York Times today, Harvard law professor Jonathan Zittrain argued that the court’s decision “is both too broad and curiously narrow.” It is too broad because it would allow a form of censorship that he believes would most likely be unconstitutional if attempted in the United States. And it is too narrow in that it does not require that the unwanted information be removed from the internet.
Despite the strong ruling, the court gave little guidance as to how regulators in the 28 EU member states should interpret, much less apply, the ruling. And with reports that Google is already being flooded with removal requests from EU-based citizens, it remains to be seen how courts will enforce or interpret the ruling if Google and others fail to comply.