The Right to Be Forgotten – What the New Google Ruling Really Means

Right-to-Be-ForgottenA recent court ruling in the European Union could have significant impact in the online reputation world…in very limited cases.

Europe’s top court recently ruled that individuals can ask Google to delete sensitive personal information from its search results. Privacy advocates are hailing it as a landmark, while free speech advocates (and Google) are saying it amounts to a form of censorship.

One can certain envision a slippery slope, which leads to anybody being able to ask any search engine to remove anything they don’t like about themselves, but a closer look at the details of the case show that the ruling only applies under very narrow circumstances, and it remains to be seen how even that will be carried out and hold up as a practical matter.

Here are a few key things to be aware of when looking at the future implications of this ruling:

1. There’s no guarantee anything will be removed. While the ruling says that people can ask for anything to be removed, the court opinion makes it clear that this is not intended to remove simply any unwanted information, but rather, information that is basically outdated, and no longer serves a current public interest by being easily found in the search engines (the case involved a property auction from a newspaper 16 years ago). The ruling leaves a lot of room for interpretation:

However, inasmuch as the removal of links from the list of results could, depending on the information at issue, have effects upon the legitimate interest of internet users potentially interested in having access to that information, the Court holds 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 observes in this regard that, whilst it is true that the data subject’s rights also override, as a general rule, that interest of internet users.

2. It’s likely only “kind of” removed. First of all, the publisher of the content may still leave the content online. Secondly, the content would only be removed for certain searches — probably for the person’s name, not for other searches, or even possibly for more specific searches for the person’s name (e.g., “john doe bankruptcy”).

3. Europe isn’t the world. While courts around the world have followed many EU court precedents, US courts have not been nearly as tough when it comes to privacy protection. Generally, the US courts have favored “freedom of information” and “the right to know” over privacy rights. In this particular EU case, the information in question (private property records) are a matter of public record in the US, making it much harder to justify any kind of right to privacy in the matter.

4. It’s unlikely that this would be extended to corporations. While in the US, corporations do have the status of being a legal “person”, the EU courts do make a distinction, and this right to privacy, or “right to be forgotten”, is an individual right, not afforded to corporations.

For now, as a practical matter for direct sellers, there’s no immediate application, except possibly for the narrow confines of, say, a European-based company’s senior executive having some negative personal history showing up for their name. This is certainly an issue we’ll be watching closely and continue to report on, but for now, don’t expect to start writing Google asking them to take down negative reviews, brandjacker videos, and attack sites targeting your brand.

For additional analysis of this case, see Danny Sullivan’s article at Search Engine Land.

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