The Court of Justice of the European Union’s recent ruling in favour of a Spanish man who wanted 1998 newspaper announcements about him removed from Google search results has prompted Google’s chief executive to suggest that the company will "be more European" in its approach. 

Google has also introduced a form allowing individuals to lodge requests for search results to be removed whilst it finalises procedures to comply with the judgment.  Some media reports have suggested that Google has been receiving 7 such requests per second.

The judgment concerned newspaper announcements mentioning a Mr Costeja González in connection with a property auction linked to the recovery of social security debts, resolved some years previously.

The Court held that:

  • Taking into account both Google’s search engine operation and its Spanish subsidiary’s role in selling advertising, Google was both "processing" personal data and acting as a "data controller" within the scope of EU data protection laws.
  • An individual like Mr Costeja González could (subject to certain conditions) require a search engine operator to remove links from a search result lists responding to a search against the individual’s name where those results did not comply with EU data protection law.
  • A removal request could, for example, be founded on grounds that the data was incomplete, inaccurate or had been kept for longer than necessary for the purpose for which it was collected.  Further, it was not necessary for the individual to have been prejudiced for the request to be valid.
  • The ruling concerns links appearing in search results- it does not follow that the underlying information itself will be deleted.
  • The data protection/privacy rights of an individual will generally override the interests of both the search engine and of the general public in accessing information relating to an individual’s name.  However, the court ruled that the rights of the individual could be outweighed by the public interest in access to the links "for particular reasons, such as the role played by the data subject in public life". 

The judgment appears to appoint Google as the initial arbiter of where this public interest lies, although local data protection/judicial authorities may have a role in cases where the search provider refuses a removal request.

The ICO has cautioned against drawing wider implications for freedom of expression in the judgment.

A final irony is that Mr Costeja González may have now been immortalised in a CJEU judgment which contains the very information that he was anxious not to be made publicly available…

Robert Renfree, Professional Support Lawyer