17th September 2014 The right to be forgotten… A slippery slope?

You may have recently heard about the new 'right to be forgotten' in current news affairs. It is somewhat of an odd concept and one which grabbed my interest. What is this new right and what does it entail? How can I enforce my 'right to be forgotten'?

Those responsible for the creation of this concept are the judges of the European Court of Justice. The EU has, since 2012, been pushing to improve the laws on data privacy. Guidelines published in 2012 suggest that old, inaccurate or irrelevant data should be taken out of search engine results.

These ideas came to a head in a legal battle in May 2014. Mr Mario Costeja Gonzalez from Spain went through a difficult financial period back in 1998 and his property was put up for auction. The story was covered in a local newspaper which was subsequently made available online. Some 16 years later Mr Gonzalez has made it through the financial difficulties. However, if you were to search for him on the internet, the auction news story would be revealed straight away. Mr Gonzalez therefore took Google to court, arguing that the presence of the article when using the search engine continued to damage his reputation and it should therefore be removed.

The European Court of Justice agreed - Google were ordered to remove the article. A success for Mr Gonzalez in his case also marked the start of much wider repercussions. The ruling means that anyone can request to have information about themselves removed from an online search result.

But there must be some rules or criteria? Indeed there are. The decision on whether to remove information from a search engine depends on the balance between two competing rights: the privacy of the individual versus the right of the general public to have access to the information. In short, information will only be removed if the impact on an individual's privacy is greater that the right of the public to find it.

The balance must be assessed on a case by case basis and is very fact sensitive. Much will depend on the type of information you wish to be removed and its relationship to the role you currently play in today's public sphere. For example, it may be harder to remove a search result detailing an arrest for a violent crime if you hold a prominent or professional role in the community, such as a politician, doctor or teacher.

Nonetheless, it provides an option for those who have unfavourable information about themselves on the internet. And it seems the public have been fully embracing the right so far. Just 3 months after the ruling, in July 2014 Google estimated it had received more than 91,000 requests to remove approximately 328,000 pages from its search results. In August 2014, the BBC reported Google had removed 12 BBC news stories including an article about a man cleared of a stabbing in London, ranging to an article about the merits of hummus.

It seems to me that the 2014 ruling has opened the floodgates. Google - and other search engines - will now be faced with a myriad of requests which will all have to be individually assessed and then acted upon. As well as the time consuming additional workload for these companies, the potential impact on human rights is mas sive. While it is important to remember that the information in question will not be removed from the internet (just the search engine results) it allows individuals to have huge control over the freedom of information. The 'right to be forgotten' should be closely monitored in order to ensure the correct balance is found and to prevent censorship beyond control.

Author profile

Gemma Stanley, LL.B (Hons)

Paralegal, Industrial Disease Department

Gemma joined Woodward Solicitors in July 2013 and has enjoyed working mainly on holiday illness claims.