The Right to be Forgotten?

Category: Privacy

Every time Mario Costeja Gonzalez googled his name, the second result was a link to a 1998 newspaper article that detailed his many debts and the forced sale of his home. Mario was tired of having that old news thrown up in his face; after all, those debts were paid in full long ago. So Mario sued Google. Here's what happened next...

Forget About It!

Gonzalez, who is a Spanish attorney, understandably felt this ancient history impacted his professional reputation today. So he filed suit against Google in the European Court of Justice, to get the story removed from search results. He won his case on May 19, 2014, much to the shock and dismay of many following the case.

The EU Court ruled that search engines, just like other “data controllers” subject to regulation in the EU, are responsible for the processing that they do to personal data even though the data originates on third-party Web pages, and for the results of that processing that are presented to visitors. Search engines can be compelled by law to remove such data from their search results if it is no longer accurate due to subsequent events, or no longer “relevant” due to the passage of time, or “excessive” in that it does more harm to the individual than it does good to society.

Google and the Right to Be Forgotten

The ruling applies only in the European Union. Presumably, someone in the EU can use the U.S. version of Google ( instead of (Spanish version) and learn all about Mario’s rough financial times. Also, Mario won merely the right to pursue legal action to force a takedown of his shame; the Court did not order its immediate removal.

Nonetheless, a firestorm of FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt) is sweeping the Internet already. Google has always maintained that it is merely a conduit of information created by third parties and therefore should not be held accountable to any effects of that information. Everyone in the search business relies on the same shield against litigation and endless nuisance takedown demands. Now, at least the EU, that immunity is gone. What will happen next?

First, the Internet is going to be shattered into “censored” and “censor-free” parts, cry the free speech activists who blithely ignore how the Internet works. As mentioned above, the “censored” data on Mario will remain available to anyone, no matter where the seeker is in the physical world.

Second, “history will be revised!” If you hear anyone crying about that please remind him that what’s on the Internet is not history; it is revisions of history. History is made in the real world and does not change; nor does the permanent record of history kept in local government offices. Anyone with a meaningful interest in Mario’s financial history can still find it at the Spanish equivalent of the county clerk’s office.

“What, you mean DRIVE there and hunt through PAPER records?” Yes, as your grandfather and I did, and as millions still do today when they have a really good reason to do so. The inconvenience we have lost thanks to the Internet has cost a lot of people their rightful privacy. (You might not even have to drive. Many counties in the USA have put real estate and court records online.)

Then there are the technocrats whose only concern is the Internet’s efficiency. They’re fearful that Google and other search engines will have to spend resources on a flood of European takedown actions that could be put to better use indexing more pictures of cats (or whatever turns you on).

Finally, there are the Internet Service Providers who fear that if even the mighty Google can be held accountable, so can they. Plans to toss Net Neutrality out the window and give preferential treatment to content providers who pay, might turn a common-carrier ISP into a “data controller” in the EU’s eyes, subject to the same ruling that now applies to Google.

Coming Soon, to a Continent Near You?

It is unlikely that the “right to be forgotten” will be established in the United States as it has been in the European Union. The Constitutional guarantee of free speech generally trumps any government effort to suppress speech, even speech by a search engine’s algorithm. But perhaps the right to be forgotten – which is, fundamentally, the right to be left alone, a.k.a, “privacy” – will find a renewed balance with its unintended nemesis, the right to express oneself freely.

Personally, I think the EU court's decision is rather odd. Even if Gonzalez's story disappears from Google Spain, it'll still be available via countless other search engines. He (and others who take the same approach) will have to notify all of them to make sure the "stain" is completely removed. And even then, the offending story will stay online at the Spanish newspaper website that originally published the story, and on every search engine operating outside the EU.

Here's a thought -- shouldn't he instead have gone after the newspaper, to get the article removed or redacted? Or better yet, the page could be tagged with NOINDEX, as this would automatically drop it from search results and prevent other search engines from adding it to their catalogs. The EU's solution is rather like a bandaid that's flapping in the wind.

Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "The Right to be Forgotten?"

Posted by:

20 May 2014

What more would you expect from the EU? The EU is rushing headlong into 1984 as fast as they can. This is just the next step.

Posted by:

20 May 2014

No dilemma here for me. Should the internet (or even the source newspapers) be obliged to ignore Kennedy's Chappaquiddick escapade, or Nixon's impeachment if interested parties seek to escape the past?
I don't think so. Newspapers that report the truth become part of factual history and thus inviolate. Period, End of story. Sorry Mario, I sympathise but facts are facts.

Posted by:

20 May 2014

I think that most are missing the point on this.

16 years ago a Lawyer was declared bankrupt.

How long is reasonable for me to wish to check into the fiscal competence of one to whom I may wish to entrust my financial affairs?

From the damn day they were born is the only answer that satisfies me.

The EU is run by Lawyers for Lawyers, and they are the only ones who benefit from this ruling.

Much the same as the US in many ways?

At least we may be allowed to 'secede from the Union' without as much dificulty as faced in the US.


Posted by:

20 May 2014

The right to be forgotten is important, especially for misleading and incorrect information. I know of a situation where an entity's good name and reputation continue to be harmed because the search engine returns results on the first page listing non-vetted information in blogs that are 2 to 4 years old. We are trying to find ways to prevent this info from showing up in the search results. Is there a way to boost the ranking of the other "good" search results? Any other ideas on how to solve this problem?

Posted by:

20 May 2014

I don't know; it seems like his rather ineffective solution was, in fact, effective to an extent. He was embarrassed by the fact that his past financial problems showed up almost at the top of search results for his name. Well, now that he's sued Google, guess what shows up when you search his name? His fight to get Google to remove the embarrassing information! Problem solved...depending on how you look at it. Ha!

Posted by:

20 May 2014

Hi Bob,

Google may find that providing the banned personal data to an EU IP address from one of their non-EU domains will put them in contempt of court.

I'm sure they are alive to that possibility.


Posted by:

20 May 2014

One of the shortcomings of search results -- especially in the area of news -- is that they aren't "threaded". In other words, there MAY be an article that shows that Mario HAS paid all his debts but the likelihood that the two search results would be right next to each other (or even linked to each other) are very remote.

But this is nothing new. In the (newspaper) print world, a front page story may have corrections printed a few days later but "buried" many pages away from the original location (ie., front page).

A "threading" search option would be a great way to resolve this issue. An article which updates older information AND links them together (so both results appear together AND next to each other) would keep the old results AND show that Mario is a good, upstanding citizen who pays his debts.

Posted by:

Thomas Owens
20 May 2014

Perhaps the search engines should provide personal information only to properly identified inquiries and then notify the person being investigated of the inquirer's identity. This way both parties gain information.

Posted by:

20 May 2014

Remember 'SKYNET'? ;)
...and lately, they're starting to show interest in robotics too!!! :D

Posted by:

20 May 2014

I think there is a huge difference between "incorrect" information that gets published and correct, but embarrassing information.
If the information is true and correct, then I think it should be available. If the information is NOT true or correct, it should be made easy to force it's removal.
I would not object if search engines were forced to use an algorithm that put results in some kind of date order so that OLD issues would only show up at the bottom of the list.

Posted by:

21 May 2014

Hi Bob
Bottom line is if "George of the Jungle" never hit the tree we wouldn't care who he is or what he's done. So watch out for that tree!!!
Really it's common sense, which attorneys and lawyers don't have usually, keep your nose clean and fess up for your goofs because nothing is hidden really. Is it???

Posted by:

21 May 2014

agreed with bob's point. makes more sense & doesn't necessarily affect other people that have nothing to do with this single person..

Posted by:

21 May 2014

If this ruling was applied to all historical records there'd be no history books - and no history!

Posted by:

21 May 2014

Tsk, tsk, tsk. Typical ... A lawyer fighting for his privacy. In the end, he really will never get it, unless, the Internet is completely, shutdown.

lhor has the right idea ... Not sure, if the search engines can do that, though. But, the suggestion makes total sense and tells the whole story, for everyone.

Posted by:

21 May 2014

I assume that the lawyer Gonzalez, the lawyers of the European Court of “Justice” and all those who support that bizarre ruling do not realise that it cannot be implemented because of TECHNICAL REASONS.

Suppose that Google does not show the said link when one searches for “Mario Gonzalez”. What if one searches for any other name or term mentioned in that article?

Suppose that a legal website had Gonzalez on a list of hundreds of people in Spain who were forced to sell their houses in 1998. What if one searches for that particular list or for any of the other names?

Moreover, there are surely many thousands of people called “Mario Gonzalez”.

Is Google supposed to avoid presenting ALL links to ALL web pages that mention that name?

If Gonzalez wins his case, he will be followed by many thousands who have something they wish to hide.

Evidently, Gonzalez DID NOT want to be forgotten. Millions of people worldwide know now about that affair in 1998. Gonzalez wanted (and got) PUBLICITY.

Similarly, the European Court of “Justice” did not attempt to achieve justice. That court relished a bizarre but populist ruling against Google.

Disclosure: I do not have any financial interest in Google or in any other search engine.

EDITOR'S NOTE: I get your point, but the issue was blocking a specific page from showing up on Google, and not blocking based on search keywords.

Posted by:

23 May 2014

Perhaps search results should be automatically be dated as to when they were posted on the Internet. Or an easier way to list all search results in date order so old information is tagged as such. I often wish this were so anyway.

Posted by:

27 May 2014

Does the EU ruling affect only Google at this time ? There are many more search engines "out there" that could serve up past information as well.....
And not to pick on them, but what about sites like "The Smoking Gun" that specialize in mostly celeb's ( famous and infamous) past transgressions as documented in public records and mug shots ?

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