The European Union's Court of Justice has clarified that the “right to be forgotten” online exists. It was done with a historic ruling which confirmed that search engines must be aware that they are dealing with personal data, and therefore are responsible for the processing of personal information.
What does this entail? Basically, search engines are required to eliminate results that appear in their indexes, in case they might invade the private life of online searchers, and above all if the information is inaccurate or outdated.
The decision will have an impact on more than 220 processes launched by Google against the resolutions issued by the Spanish Agency for Data Protection, currently awaiting trial by the Spanish Courts.
Despite the conclusions reached by the General Attorney, the European Union's Court of Justice noted that European law can indeed be applied in favor of the “digital right to be forgotten” on the internet, and highlights very clearly the responsibility of search engines regarding the protection of citizens and their personal data.
How to proceed in cases of conflict
Before contacting the search engine, a citizen who believes their privacy rights are being infringed upon must assert their right to cancellation of data to the web site, social network or publication in question.
Based on our experience, we believe that sooner or later, search portals will have to remove all personal information. It is true however that certain web sites deny cancelation rights, arguing in accordance with other rights, such as freedom of expression. Our professional experience also confirms that many citizens have particular interest in recognizing this “new right.” This is especially true for people who wish to erase sensitive data, including information that can only be processed by written consent, such as health statements and ideological positions. It is becoming increasingly common for people to be damaged by the diffusion of false, inaccurate, or outdated information, or even by slander and insults that directly affect their personal, family, social, and professional lives.
The right to be forgotten is not unconditional. The European Court of Justice has deemed it necessary to require an assessment of the specific circumstances in each case, in order to weigh the interest of the search engine user, the affected person, and the managers of the search engine.
For now we have only seen the first chapter of a legal battle with international range in this field of technology. It is necessary to wait and see just how the rule concerning the digital right to be forgotten can be applied to the other legal processes taking place in the Spanish courts. When this happens, we will be able to confirm that citizens are effectively protected from unlawful processing of personal data by search engines--a processing which is aggravated by search engines' visibility and universal dissemination of personal data that could not otherwise be found or would require excessive effort to discover.
(*) Lawyer. Specialist in Administrative, Technological, and Geospatial Law - Law Firm, Mas y Calvet (Spain)