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What Europe's new 'right to be forgotten' online means

Brian S Hall | June 6, 2014
Would something like this ever happen in the U.S.? Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales doesn't think so.

past erased

Can you really be forgotten on the Internet? The European Union (EU) believes so, and recently ordered Google, Bing, and Yahoo to make it happen. The court's decision could fundamentally remake search engines, impact journalism and lead to all manner of thorny issues related to censorship, privacy, and the public's right to know.

The controversial ruling is still new, so the search engines are still figuring out their next steps; Google is already accepting right-to-be-forgotten requests while putting together an advisory committee that includes Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales (who argues that the ruling is "censorship plain and simple," first on Twitter and also in an email interview.)

To make sense of the right-to-be-forgotten issue—including how it potentially impacts Web users—here's a look at some questions you may have about the European court's decision.

What does "the right to be forgotten" mean?
Just for the sake of example, let's say you're a cheating politician or a victim of online bullying or simply a regular person who types his name into Google and doesn't like what he sees. You want Google to remove links to any webpages about you that are wrong, harmful, outdated—or that simply do not reflect who you are. This is now legally possible, at least for those in the EU.

Why is this happening now?
Because of a recent ruling by the Court of Justice of the European Union. The exact case is Google Spain SL, Google Inc. v Agencia Española de Protección de Datos, Mario Costeja González—here's a pdf. The court ruled that people can ask search engine operators—that'd be Google—to remove certain results about them.

court of justice of european union
The Court of Justice of the European Union is located in Luxembourg.

What kind of results?
In the court's words, that means links to webpages that are deemed "inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant, or excessive in relation to the purposes for which they were processed and in the light of the time that has elapsed." So even if the information is true, you can still keep it from showing up in search results.

So now pedophiles and corrupt politicians can have negative information about them removed?
They can try, and many already have. But they will likely fail. The Court was reasonably clear that information in the "public interest" need not be erased from Google's servers and that a "fair balance" between individual privacy and the public interest be maintained.

That said, it's open to debate whether a link to a 20-year-old arrest record, for example, should be forgotten or is (still) in the public interest. If Google rejects a removal request, the person could take the company to court.

 

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