Google does not have to apply Europe’s landmark “right to be forgotten” law globally, the continent’s highest court has ruled.
The right to be forgotten was enshrined by the European court of justice in 2014, when it said Google must delete “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant” data from its results when a member of the public requests it.
On Tuesday, the ECJ ruled that there was no obligation under EU law for a search engine operator to extend the 2014 ruling beyond the EU member states. However, it added that a search engine operator must put measures in place to discourage internet users from going outside the EU to find that information.
“The balance between right to privacy and protection of personal data, on the one hand, and the freedom of information of internet users, on the other, is likely to vary significantly around the world,” the court said in its decision. The court said the right to be forgotten was not an absolute right.
The case touched on the thorny issues of balancing data privacy and protection concerns against the public’s right to know, posing questions about how to enforce the law when it comes to the borderless internet. Tuesday’s ruling stems from a dispute between Google and the French privacy regulator CNIL, which in 2015 called for the firm to globally remove links to pages containing damaging or false information about a person.
Google introduced a geo-blocking feature in 2016 following year, which stopped European users from being able to see delisted links. However, it resisted censoring search results for people in other parts of the world, challenging a €100,000 (£88,376) fine CNIL tried to impose.
The technology firm argued that, if this rule were applied outside Europe, the obligation could be abused by authoritarian governments trying to cover up human rights abuses.
Google says it has received 845,501 “right to be forgotten” requests in the past five years, leading to the removal of 45% of the 3.3m links referred to in the requests. Although the content itself remains online, it cannot be found through online searches of the individual’s name.
The 2014 ruling related to a test case brought by a Spanish man after he failed to secure the deletion of an auction notice of his repossessed home dating from 1998 on a Catalan website.
Google won the backing of the ECJ court adviser Maciej Szpunar earlier this year, who said the right to be forgotten should be enforced only in Europe and not globally. Judges follow such non-binding opinions in four out of five cases.
The US firm was also supported by Microsoft, Wikipedia’s owner the Wikimedia Foundation, and the non-profit Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, among others.
The world’s most popular internet search engine has previously warned of the dangers of overreach by Europe. In a blogpost two years ago, the company said there should be a balance between sensitive personal data and the public interest and that no one country should be able to impose its rules on citizens of another.
On Tuesday, Peter Fleischer, Google’s senior privacy counsel, said in a statement: “Since 2014, we’ve worked hard to implement the right to be forgotten in Europe, and to strike a sensible balance between people’s rights of access to information and privacy. It’s good to see that the court agreed with our arguments.”
Thomas Hughes, executive director of the freedom of expression organisation Article 19, said: “This ruling is a victory for global freedom of expression. Courts or data regulators in the UK, France or Germany should not be able to determine the search results that internet users in America, India or Argentina get to see … It is not right that one country’s data protection authorities can impose their interpretation on Internet users around the world.”