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Topic: [ncsm-members] European Court Lets Users Erase Records on Web
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Jerry P. Becker

Posts: 16,576
Registered: 12/3/04
[ncsm-members] European Court Lets Users Erase Records on Web
Posted: May 14, 2014 9:06 AM
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From The New York Times, Wednesday, May 14, 2014.
See related opinion at: Editorial/Opinion -
European Court Lets Users Erase Records on Web

By David Streitfeld

Europe's highest court said on Tuesday that
people had the right to influence what the world
could learn about them through online searches, a
ruling that rejected long-established notions
about the free flow of information on the

A search engine like Google should allow online
users to be "forgotten" after a certain time by
erasing links to web pages unless there are
"particular reasons" not to, the European Court
of Justice in Luxembourg said.

The decision underlined the power of search
companies to retrieve controversial information
while simultaneously placing sharp limits on
their ability to do so. It raised the possibility
that a Google search could become as cheery - and
as one-sided - as a Facebook profile or an page.

Jonathan Zittrain, a law and computer science
professor at Harvard, said those who were
determined to shape their online personas could
in essence have veto power over what they wanted
people to know.

"Some will see this as corrupting," he said.
"Others will see it as purifying. I think it's a
bad solution to a very real problem, which is
that everything is now on our permanent records."

In some ways, the court is trying to erase the
last 25 years, when people learned to routinely
check out online every potential suitor, partner
or friend. Under the court's ruling, information
would still exist on websites, court documents
and online archives of newspapers, but people
would not necessarily know it was there. The
decision cannot be appealed.

In the United States, the court's ruling would
clash with the First Amendment. But the decision
heightens a growing uneasiness everywhere over
the Internet's ability to persistently define
people against their will.

"More and more Internet users want a little of
the ephemerality and the forgetfulness of
predigital days," said Viktor Mayer-Schönberger,
professor of Internet governance at the Oxford
Internet Institute.

Young people, in particular, do not want their
drunken pictures to follow them for the next 30
years. "If you're always tied to the past, it's
difficult to grow, to change," Mr.
Mayer-Schönberger said. "Do we want to go into a
world where we largely undo forgetting?"

The court said search engines were not simply
dumb pipes, but played an active role as data
"controllers," and must be held accountable for
the links they provide. Search engines could be
compelled to remove links to certain pages, it
said, "even when the publication in itself on
those pages is lawful."

The court also said that a search engine "as a
general rule" should place the right to privacy
over the right of the public to find information.

Left unclarified was exactly what history remains
relevant. Should a businessman be able to expunge
a link to his bankruptcy a decade ago? Could a
would-be politician get a drunken-driving arrest
removed by calling it a youthful folly?

The burden of fulfilling the court's directives
will fall largely on Google, which is by far the
dominant search engine in Europe. It has more
than 90 percent of the search business in France
and Germany.

Google said in a statement that the ruling was
"disappointing" and that the company was "very
surprised" it differed so much from a preliminary
verdict last year that was largely in its favor.

The decision leaves many questions unanswered.
Among them is whether information would be
dropped only on Google sites in individual
countries, or whether it would be also erased
from Even as Europe has largely
erased its internal physical borders, the ruling
could impose digital borders.

Another open question is how much effort a search
engine should reasonably spend investigating

"I expect the default action by search engines
will be to take down information," said Orla
Lynskey, a lecturer in law at the London School
of Economics.

A trade group for information technology
companies said the court's decision posed a
threat to free expression.

"This ruling opens the door to large-scale
private censorship in Europe," said James
Waterworth, the head of the Brussels office for
the Computer and Communications Industry
Association, which counts Facebook, Microsoft and
Google among its members. "While the ruling
likely means to offer protections, our concern is
it could also be misused by politicians or others
with something to hide."

That view was echoed by Big Brother Watch, a
London-based civil liberties group that was
perhaps the first to invoke the specter of Orwell.

"The principle that you have a right to be
forgotten is a laudable one, but it was never
intended to be a way for people to rewrite
history," said Emma Carr, the organization's
acting director.

Mr. Mayer-Schönberger, the author of "Delete: The
Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age," said
such concerns were overblown. He said the court
was simply affirming what had been standard
European practice.

Relatively few people in Europe have had issues
with wanting to delete information on the
Internet, Mr. Mayer-Schönberger said. "I don't
think this will lead to the end of the Internet
as we know it."

Michael Fertik is chief executive of, which helps people improve their
search results into something they find less

"For the first time, human dignity will get the
same treatment online as copyright," Mr. Fertik
said. "It will be protected under the law. That's
a huge deal."

The only loser, he said, was Google. "It no
longer gets to profit from your misery."

And perhaps "This ruling is not
necessarily favorable for my business," he said.

Those who worry that many people might use the
ruling to erase information that is detrimental
but is unquestionedly accurate may find support
in the case that began it.

The case started in 2009 when Mario Costeja, a
Spanish lawyer, complained that entering his name
in Google led to legal notices dating to 1998 in
an online version of a Spanish newspaper that
detailed his debts and the forced sale of his

Mr. Costeja said the debt issues had been
resolved many years earlier and were no longer
relevant. So he asked the newspaper that had
published the information, La Vanguardia, to
remove the notices and Google to expunge the
links. When they refused, Mr. Costeja complained
to the Spanish Data Protection Agency that his
rights to the protection of his personal data
were being violated.

The Spanish authority ordered Google to remove
the links in July 2010, but it did not impose any
order on La Vanguardia. Google challenged the
order, and the National High Court of Spain
referred the case to the European court.

Mr. Costeja's lawyer, Joaquín Muñoz, said
Tuesday's ruling was a victory not only for his
client, but for all Europeans. "The fundamental
point is that consumers will now know what the
rules of the game are and how to defend their
rights," he said.
James Kanter, Mark Scott and Raphael Minder contributed reporting.
SIDEBAR PHOTO: The highest court in the European
Union decided on Tuesday that Google must, in
some cases, honor requests from its search engine
users to delete links to personal information.
Credit -- Georges Gobet/Agence France-Presse - Getty Images
SIDEBAR PHOTO: The case began in 2009 when Mario
Costeja, a lawyer in Spain, objected that
entering his name in Google's search engine led
to legal notices that he said were no longer
relevant. Credit -- Cabalar/European Pressphoto
James Kanter, Mark Scott and Raphael Minder contributed reporting.
A version of this article appears in print on May
14, 2014, on page A1 of the New York edition with
the headline: European Court Lets Users Erase
Records on Web.

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