Following the recent Court of Justice decision in the Costeja case, Google launched a service last Friday that will allow European data subjects to request the removal of search results for queries that include their name where those results are "inadequate, irrelevant, or no longer relevant, or excessive in relation to the purpose for which they were processed". The request form  is available online.

The Costeja ruling addresses the question of the extent to which search engines (not just Google) are obliged to remove from their search results links to content that is already lawfully available on the web. It therefore deals with a very specific scenario: the search result(s) must arise from inputting a query for your own name, they must be displayed in the search engine's results and they must relate to information that is lawfully published on the web, but which is of such an outdated nature that it satisfies the criteria set out by the Court of Justice. Google make available a range of tools for making other types of legal removal requests, so this new tool is designed for persons seeking the removal of material that is lawfully available elsewhere on the web.

Regrettably, the court's ruling provides very little guidance as to the balancing test that will need to be applied to decide whether the data subject's rights override the public's right to know and distribute information. It seems that this test will have to be determined on a case by case basis by weighing up the data subject's concerns against wider public interest considerations. Google have indicated that they will carry out this assessment in the first instance. They have cited a few examples of information about which there would be a general public interest to know – financial scams, professional malpractice, criminal convictions or public conduct of government officials.

If a data subject is not satisfied with Google's decision, it will be open to him/her to raise the matter with the appropriate data protection authority. The Office of the Data Protection Commissioner in Ireland has already announced that it expects data subjects to address their removal requests to Google before seeking its involvement (see report here).

Key features of the new removal request form include:

  • There is a requirement that the data subject supply a valid photo ID when making a removal request (this is so as to ensure against bogus removal requests being made).
  • When making a removal request, you need to supply the URL of the underlying webpage that you wish to have removed from Google's search results in response to a search for your name.  
  • When making a removal request, you need to explain (a) why the underlying content relates to you, and (b) the reason why the content can be said to be irrelevant, outdated or otherwise inappropriate.
  • The person making the removal request is required to confirm that information provided is true information.

The Costeja decision has raised as many questions as it has answered, and it is to be expected that it will take some time for search engines and the relevant authorities to work out what is the right balance to be struck between an individual's right of privacy and the public right to access information.