Bursting the Bubble

Panel discussion in The Netherlands on the right to be forgotten

28 January 2015 | by

Last week in Amsterdam, a panel of experts discussed the right to be forgotten pertaining to the Google Spain v AEPD and Mario Costeja González case, hereinafter (Google v Gonzàlez). The participants in the debate were Mr. Egbert Dommering, a professor of law at the University of Amsterdam, Andreas Udo De Haes, a journalist and Frederik Borgesius, a PhD researcher at the Institute for Information Law within the University of Amsterdam.

In 1998, Spanish lawyer Mario Costeja González was declared bankrupt. The newspaper La Vanguardia published announcements about Costeja González in its printed edition, regarding the forced sale of properties arising from social security debts. A version of the edition was later made available on the web. Costeja González sued Google after Google refused initial requests for the removal of these old legal notices from Google’s search engine In May 2014. The Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU) agreed with Costeja González that the information had become inadequate, irrelevant and/or excessive. The CJEU ruled that Google and other search engines must honour requests from EU citizens seeking to have their websites removed from search results because they may no longer be relevant, or may infringe upon that person’s privacy.

One of the discussion points during the debate is whether we, European citizens, should have the right to get access to personal information about others on the internet. Also, is it acceptable that Google, a for-profit company, decides which information we get access to, and which information we don’t have access to? “The right to freedom of information is very important and also implies the right to pass information to others and to receive information”, argues professor Egbert Dommering. “Google is fulfilling this right even though it’s a commercial organisation.” According to Mr. Dommering, there is a lot of information out there. Too much for us to handle without the help of search engines. Therefore, we need Google to organise this data for us to use.

Journalist Andreas Udo De Haes says we should not overestimate the importance of the judgement in the Google v Gonzàlez case. “People have to [the] right to have a link removed from the search results. The information itself does not disappear”. However, it is not that simple. There is one problematic loophole with Google’s implementation of the CJEU ruling, argues De Heas. Requests made by private individuals under the ruling are only implemented by Google on European sub domains, such as Google.co.uk or Google.de, not on Google.com. According to De Heas, this allows a loophole (i.e. searching on google.com) to circumvent a de-listed search result on a private individual’s name.

Mr. Dommering believes the CJEU applied the privacy law too rigorously. “The law is not keeping up with the rapid technology development. At the moment, we are damaging the advantages of our information system by hearing privacy claims. This is the same as saying: ‘there are too many traffic accidents, let’s all go back to cycling’”.

Another problem Andreas De Haes foresees is the enormous expenses Google will have to bear to respond to all requests to have a link removed. Though Google disagreed with the ruling, it has been carrying out the process by handling more than 200,000 requests it has received, according to its latest Transparency Report. Many requests means that many legal experts will need to review them, which means high costs for Google. De Haes is concerned that this will lead to high censorship allowance, and that a link will be removed automatically when a request is made. “It will become too costly for Google to review each individual request and therefore this process will be automatized.”

Frederik Borgesius has another point of view, and argued it is Google’s own fault and that the company should therefore accept the consequences. “You could say that Google is the one who caused this, so it should be the one to clean up the mess as well”.

What do you think?