Google has won a European Union court battle against plans to impose a global “right to be forgotten” in the latest landmark ruling over where to draw the line between privacy and freedom of speech.
The EU court of justice on Tuesday said search engines should remove results on European versions of its websites and weren’t required to scrub links globally. Five years earlier the same tribunal forced the US tech giant to remove European links to websites that contain out-of-date or false information that could unfairly harm a person’s reputation. The ruling is binding and can’t be appealed.
The Alphabet unit challenged the French privacy authority’s order to extend the scope to all of its platforms across the world. In a related ruling on how far Google could cite the public interest to refuse to pull links, judges said the search engine must weigh privacy concerns against users’ right to know in each individual case.
“This ruling is a victory for global freedom of expression,” said Thomas Hughes of Article 19, a human rights campaign group that supported Google in the case. “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.”
French regulator CNIL didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Google had argued that such decisions to make search results disappear pushes the Internet into dangerous waters. The 2014 judgment already forces it to offer up different links on European searches than in other regions. The search engine giant and its supporters, including press freedom groups, have warned that Internet freedom would be brushed aside if less democratic parts of the world embraced the same policy and won the right to remove search results globally.
Not a blanket right
The court didn’t give Google a blanket right to shrug off European requests for global deletions. European authorities could still potentially order a link to be removed on all versions of a search engine after balancing privacy rights versus the right to freedom of information, the ruling said.
Google is now effectively required to block European users’ access to outlawed links. It must now “effectively prevent or, at the very least, seriously discourage an Internet user” seeking information that should be hidden to protect a person’s privacy, the court said. National tribunals must weigh if Google goes far enough with so-called geo-blocking efforts to prevent viewers from one location seeing such links.
In a separate ruling, the EU judges were unclear in their decision over deleting links to two stories involving a personal relationship with a public office holder, and an article mentioning the name of a Church of Scientology PR manager. Internet users’ right to know may override a right to privacy in some circumstances, it said. The balance between these rights must be made in each individual case.
That judgment puts the onus on Google to consider “the nature and the seriousness of the offense in question” as well as “the time elapsed, the part played by that person in public life and his or her past conduct, the public’s interest at the time of the request” and the consequences of showing a link to the information.
The search engine should agree to remove links pointing to information on legal proceedings against someone and potentially to a conviction if it is judged no longer relevant to a person’s life, the judges said. Google should also consider how it orders search results to reflect the current legal position, they added.
Judges in London and Paris have been sympathetic to efforts to suppress unflattering information. Last year, a London court told Google to remove news reports about a businessman’s criminal convictions, in line with an English law that aims to aid people to put past crimes behind them. Paris judges also told Google to reduce the visibility of stories about a former chief financial officer fined for civil insider-trading violations.
Google’s importance as the leading search engine in Europe has led to an EU declaration that it dominates the European market. The company is separately challenging billions of euros in antitrust fines at the same EU courts in Luxembourg. — Reported by Aoife White, with assistance from Natalia Drozdiak and Stephanie Bodoni, (c) 2019 Bloomberg LP