Rights advocates welcome #Righttobeforgotten ruling | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 13.05.2014
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Rights advocates welcome #Righttobeforgotten ruling

An EU court has ruled that individuals have the right to ask Google to delete sensitive data from its search results. Rights advocates have taken to social media with many calling the decision a win for privacy.

Individuals can ask Google to remove personal information generated in its search results, the European Court of Justice ruled on Tuesday (13.05.2014).

The landmark decision gives people the so-called "right to be forgotten," meaning that Google must amend its search results in some instances where a person's name might link to content that is outdated or irrelevant.

Minutes after the ruling was announced, there was a flurry of activity on social media. Using the hashtags #ECJ and #righttobeforgotten, many observers expressed their shock at the outcome.

Wall Street Journal reporters Matthew Dalton and Frances Robinson tweeted their surprise:

The decision was unexpected because it went against the opinion of the ECJ Advocate General Niilo Jääskinen. Last June, he said Google was not responsible for the data carried by websites appearing on its search engine, and many believed the court would rule the same way.

Google has previously maintained it wasn't obliged to delete such data, arguing it amounted to "censorship." The Internet giant said it was "disappointed" by Tuesday's ruling.

The case centers on a Spaniard who said that when his name was Googled, it returned links to an advertisement for a property auction related to an unpaid social welfare debt. He argued the debt had long since been settled.

"A victory for data protection"

The court's ruling has set a precedent that will apply across the EU. Viviane Reding, the European Commissioner for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship, said on Facebook that the decision was a “clear victory for the protection of personal data of Europeans.”

Reding, who has campaigned for a data protection framework across Europe, issued a statement via social media saying the ruling confirmed that "data belongs to the individual, not to the company. And unless there is a good reason to retain this data, an individual should be empowered - by law - to request erasure of this data."

Censorship concerns

Response to the ruling has been overwhelmingly positive, but several free speech groups have raised concerns about censorship.

Tweeting in German, Andreas Proschofsky, Editor of Austrian newspaper "The Standard," warned that on the one hand, the ruling could strengthen data protection and privacy, but on the other, it could encourage censorship.

But what does it all mean?

Berlin-based lawyer and editor of "Privacy in Germany," Professor Niko Härting, suggests celebrities who want to defend themselves against certain media coverage could just go to Google to have the content removed.

The court said individuals had a right to control their private data, especially if they aren't public figures. It said links should be removed, "unless there are particular reasons, such as the role played by the data subject in public life, justifying a preponderant interest of the public in having access to the information when such a search is made."

Following initial reactions on social media, questions are now being asked about how the precedent could affect privacy across Europe.

Berlin-based journalist Till Schwarze at Zeit Online asks what will happen to the content once the links are deleted. Will it still be available with the original source online?

And Joerg Heidrich, a lawyer specializing in IT legal issues, says the judgment seems to show a misunderstanding of how search engines work.

German technology journalist Falk Steiner:

Others have taken a more light-hearted approach. Hamburg-based journalist Fiete Stegers points out that the name of the Spanish plaintiff who wanted his name removed from Google was published in the ECJ's press release about the judgment.

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