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German court says Google must delist content if proven false

May 23, 2023

Arguing for their "right to be forgotten," a couple in finance had sought to have content critical of them delisted from Google. The court said Google must do so only if content is proven false.

The German Federal Court of Justice in Karlsruhe
The German Federal Court of Justice is based in KarlsruheImage: Uli Deck/dpa/picture alliance

Germany's Federal Court of Justice (BGH) on Tuesday ruled that search engines are only obliged to delist content if the people affected can prove the published information is false.

The court ruled in a case brought forward by a couple who work in the financial service industry. They were seeking to have critical articles about their investment model removed from Google

The couple accused a US website moderator of deliberately publishing negative reports about them with the intention of blackmailing them. 

Google did not delete the links to those articles, saying that it was unable to tell if the accusations were true. 

What did the court rule?

The BGH dismissed the couple's request that Google deletes links about them from its search results. The judge said the two plaintiffs had failed to prove that the content was false. 

However, the court ordered Google to delete web-page thumbnails that appear when their names are searched.

"Displaying the plaintiffs' photos, which are not meaningful in themselves, as thumbnails without any context was not justified," the BGH said.

The ruling was based on a previous one by the the European Court of Justice (ECJ) on the so-called "right to be forgotten."

Last December, the ECJ ruled that it was up to individuals to prove that the information about them that they want deleted was false. Otherwise, search engines like Google are not obliged to remove such content. 

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What is the 'right to be forgotten?'

The "right to be forgotten," or right to erasure, means people have the right to ask internet organizations to delete their personal data.

Under EU laws, organizations must remove the data of the affected individuals within a month — although they are not always obliged to do so. 

If the personal data no longer serves the original purpose of its collection, or if it is used for marketing or unlawful purposes, it must be removed, according to EU rules

But in some cases, Google, or other search engines, cannot be forced to remove content. For example, if the data is being used for legal or public health purposes, if it serves public health interest or if its usage falls under the right of freedom of expression. 

While you're here: Every Tuesday, DW editors round up what is happening in German politics and society. You can sign up here for the weekly email newsletter Berlin Briefing.

fb/nm, wd (AFP, dpa, KNA)