Google wins legal battle to keep 'right to be forgotten' in EU only

Google Credit: Stefan Rousseau/PA

Google does not have to remove out-of-date web pages on EU citizens from its search engine results worldwide, Europe's top court has ruled.

Under the "right to be forgotten", EU citizens are allowed to ask Google to remove webpages considered “inadequate, irrelevant or… excessive” if the search is carried out in an EU country.

Even though the web page would still exist, it de-lists from a search engine which makes it harder for people to find.

The law came into force in 2014, after Spanish national Mario Costeja sought to remove out-of-date links relating to unsettled debts which he had repaid.

Even though the web page would still exist, it de-lists from a search engine which makes it harder for people to find. Credit: Yui Mok/PA

France’s data regulator, the Commission Nationale de l’Informatique et des Libertes (CNIL), had asked the European Court of Justice to clarify whether de-listing should be extended to other country's search engines across the world.

In its ruling, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) recognised that countries outside the EU “have a different approach” and that the balance between the right to privacy and the protection of personal data against freedom of information of internet users “is likely to vary significantly around the world”.

It continued: “The Court adds that the right to the protection of personal data is not an absolute right, but must be considered in relation to its function in society and be balanced against other fundamental rights, in accordance with the principle of proportionality.”

Earlier this year, Advocate General Maciej Szpunar issued his non-binding opinion to the European Court of Justice on the case, proposing that the court should limit the scope of the de-referencing that search engine operators are required to carry out to the EU.

Mr Szpunar said that the principle should be “balanced” against other rights, such as data protection and privacy, as well as the “legitimate public interest”.

Peter Fleischer, senior privacy counsel at Google, said: “Since 2014, we’ve worked hard to implement the right to be forgotten in Europe, and to strike a sensible balance between people’s rights of access to information and privacy.

“It’s good to see that the court agreed with our arguments, and we’re grateful to the independent human rights organisations, media associations and many others around the world who also presented their views to the court.”

Thomas Hughes, executive director of human rights organisation Article 19, called the ruling “a victory for global freedom of expression”.

“Courts or data regulators in the UK, France or Germany should not be able to determine the search results that internet users in America, India or Argentina get to see,” he said.

“The court is right to state that the balance between privacy and free speech should be taken into account when deciding if websites should be de-listed – and also to recognise that this balance may vary around the world.

“It is not right that one country’s data protection authorities can impose their interpretation on internet users around the world.”