The Right to be Forgotten: Spain and Google Before the European Court

A professor fined for urinating in public when he was a teenager. A civil servant whose online information made him an ETA [the Basque terrorist organization] target. A businessman whose assets were seized due to a social security debt. Mocking from students, the risk of attack, rejected by banks. People who have made every effort to make a fresh start, yet for years have had to bear the consequences of appearing in the Official State Bulletin after being convicted.

Tribunal de Justicia de la Unión Europea en Luxemburgo. Foto de la web del Parlamento Europeo, utilizada con permiso.

The European Court of Justice in Luxemburg. Photo taken from the European Parliament website, with permission.

More than a year ago, Spain's Data Protection Agency (AEPD in Spanish) required Google to omit personal information in its search results in order to comply with a  Spanish law that aims to protect the privacy of an individual's personal information [pdf]. Google contested AEPD's suit before Spain's National Court (AN). But in an effort to comply with general privacy norms, the AN referred the case to the European Court of Justice (ECJ), in Luxembourg, in February 2011, questioning the most appropriate ruling to uphold European precedence. On 26 February the case appeared before the ECJ, which will issue its non-binding ruling on 25 June of this year.

This case, which coincides with the current debate in the European Parliament regarding a draft law that would adapt legislation to the digital era and allow a judicial body to grant European Union citizens the right the be forgotten, returns the issue of freedom of expression and the right to privacy and control over personal information to the forefront. As noted by Sevach [es] in his blog [es]:

Google crece y crece como una inmensa bola de datos que mezcla información valiosa como penosa y se ha convertido en la ventana que, más allá de la legítima pesquisa para formarse, investigar o divertirse, permite regodearse en la intimidad de personas accediendo a anécdotas, incidentes de su pasado, que ya no tienen interés o que fueron desmentidos o privados de efecto.

Google is continuing to grow as a massive source of information, mixing valuable information with the useless, becoming a site that beyond the legitimate inquiry to develop skills, research, or enjoyment, allows one to take delight in the intimate details of another, accessing less than flattering information that at best may no longer be relevant or applicable to one's life and at worst information that had been denied or altogether omitted.

Ruth Benito summarizes the premises of this process in her blog Con la venia, señorías [es]:

Los boletines oficiales en papel, (…), no tenían la repercusión que actualmente tiene un boletín oficial electrónico. Lo que se publicaba en un boletín oficial en papel o en un periódico en papel, dejaba pronto de ser fácilmente accesible. (…) Ahora lo que se publica en un boletín electrónico o en un periódico digital queda de forma permanente e indefinida en Internet, a nuestra disposición en breves segundos cómodamente desde el sofá de nuestra casa. Internet se ha convertido así en una extensión de nuestra memoria.

A paper copy of the official bulletins doesn't have the same reprecussions as those from the electronic edition. What's published in the paper version of the Bulletin or in a newspaper is information that stops being readily available rather quickly. (…) But now that things are produced electronically, their presence is a permanent fixture on the internet; all of which is at our disposal in seconds from the comfort of our homes. The internet has transformed into an extension of our memory.

In the article What is the right to be forgotten? [es] on, Iñaki de la Torre Calvo explains Google's claim:

Google, por su lado, dice (muy resumidamente) que ellos simplemente se limitan a mostrar al usuario dónde encontrar información sobre la persona requerida, pero que no son responsables de los datos que haya colgados en esa web; y que si quieren que esos detalles personales desaparezcan, que se lo digan al propietario/editor de esa página para que los “descuelgue”.

[Google] repone que omitir los resultados de cualquier cosa sin discriminación es una lesión al derecho a la información de cada ciudadano. El problema quizá no es tanto que el robot encuentre esa web con una sentencia o una foto desagradable, sino en qué puesto coloca ese resultado.

Google, for its part, says (very summarily) that they simply show the user where they may find their desired information, but they are not responsible for the actual information that can be found on the site; and if individuals want these personal details to not longer be available, then they need to contact the information's host site to take down the information.

[Google's] failure to produce results from any inquiry without discrimination would be to the deficit of every individual's right to information. The problem isn't as much that this robot finds an unflattering statement or photograph, but rather the order in which it lists these results.

Figures on privacy and the internet in the EU. Image taken from the European Parliament website, with permission.

Figures on privacy and the internet in the EU. Image taken from the European Parliament website, with permission.

Opinions are divided among internet users. Zadig states in an El País article [es]:

El que tenga más que ocultar seguro que resulta más interesado en la regulación de Internet que el otro que tenga una vida, vamos, más transparente. Así que mejor que se sepa todo, porque de mentiras ya estamos por las narices, y ocultar la Verdad es alabar a la Mentira.

He who has more to hide is of course more interested in the regulation of the internet than one who who lives a more transparent life. It's better to know it all because the level of lies we're currently among are outrageous. To conceal the truth is to exalt lies.

Meanwhile CeciliaHadadBeltramo and José Luis Calzada tweeted:

@CeciliaHadad: es importante el derecho al olvido para los usuarios porque las personas se reciclan y tendrían que poder hacerlo en la red.

The right to be forgotten is important because people change, their image on the internet should too.

‏@jlcalzada: En esto del “derechoalolvido” Google hace lo que le sale de los algoritmos

In this “right to be forgotten” let's remember Google does whatever they algorithmically want.

Rafael Díaz Arias says in his article on [es]:

Y es que -parece obvio recordarlo- ningún derecho es absoluto. Todos están interrelacionados y todos tienen que estar al servicio de los otros, pero en caso de conflicto tiene que predominar el que sea más esencial e irrenunciable para la dignidad personal.

(…) En Europa se da más peso a los derechos de la personalidad que en Estados Unidos, pero también allí la jurisprudencia (constitucional) del Tribunal Supremo considera la privacidad como un derecho irrenunciable.

The fact is- which seems obvious to say- that no right is absolute. They're all interrelated with each at the mercy of the others, but in the instance where there's a conflict the one that triumphs is the one that is most essential and undeniable to personal dignity.

(…) Europe gives more weight to the rights of individual than the U.S., but there the Supreme Court also considers privacy to be an inalienable right.

Peter Fleischer, Google's Global Privacy Council, defends the freedom of expression on his blog:

Peter Fleischer hablando en Euroforum. Foto de su blog «Privacy...?»

Peter Fleischer speaking at Euroforum. Photo from his blog “Privacy…?”

More and more, privacy is being used to justify censorship. In a sense, privacy depends on keeping some things private, in other words, hidden, restricted, or deleted. (…) Privacy is the new black in censorship fashions. It used to be that people would invoke libel or defamation to justify censorship about things that hurt their reputations. But invoking libel or defamation requires that the speech not be true. Privacy is far more elastic, because privacy claims can be made on speech that is true.

The ECJ's definitive decision, which will be binding for the 27 EU member states, will be issued in the next nine to twelve months. Other countries in the EU such as Austria, Greece, Italy and Poland are also in the process of similar cases.

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