If you want your past to be forgotten on the internet, it might be best to move to Europe.
Google will not have to apply Europe’s “right to be forgotten” law globally, the continent’s top court ruled on Tuesday in a landmark case that has pitted personal privacy rights against freedom of speech.
The victory for the US tech titan means that, while it must remove links to sensitive personal data from its internet search results in Europe when required, it does not have to scrap them from searches elsewhere in the world.
It has also been seen by policymakers and companies around the world as a test of whether the European Union can extend its laws beyond its own territory. The ruling, which applies to all search engines, is rare positive news for big tech companies under intense official scrutiny on both sides of the Atlantic over their dominant positions and gathering of vast amounts of data.
In its judgment, the Court of Justice of the European Union said the right to have personal data protected was not an absolute right.
“The balance between the right to privacy and the protection of personal data, on the one hand, and the freedom of information of internet users, on the other, is likely to vary significantly around the world,” it added.
Google welcomed the decision, saying: “It’s good to see that the court agreed with our arguments.”
The world’s predominant internet search engine has previously warned of the dangers of overreach by Europe. In a blog post two years ago, it said there should be a balance between sensitive personal data and the public interest and no country should be able to impose rules on citizens of another.
The right to be forgotten was enshrined by the same European court in 2014 when it ruled that people could ask search engines like Google to remove inadequate or irrelevant information from web results appearing under searches for their names.
Google, a unit of Alphabet Inc, says it has since received 845,501 requests to remove links, and removed 45 per cent of the 3.3 million links it was asked to scrap.
Privacy vs speech
UK rights group Article 19, which campaigns for freedom of speech and information, applauded Tuesday’s decision, in which the judges also said Google had some leeway in deciding whether to scrap links because of the balance between privacy rights and public interest.
“Courts or data regulators in the UK, France or Germany should not be able to determine the search results that internet users in America, India or Argentina get to see,” Article 19 said.
“The court is right to state that the balance between privacy and free speech should be taken into account when deciding if websites should be de-listed – and also to recognise that this balance may vary around the world.”
But Patrick Van Eecke, global chair of the data protection practice at law firm DLA Piper, said it would limit the impact of a successful right to be forgotten application as it will be ring-fenced to searches performed within the European Union.
“This might obviously be frustrating for people who will see that people from outside Europe will still be able to find the de-listed search results when performing the same search on Google in New York, Shanghai or any other place in the world,” he added.
The case arose in 2016 after France’s privacy watchdog CNIL fined Google €100,000 (S$151,000) for refusing to de-list sensitive information from search results globally upon request.
Google took its fight to the French Council of State which subsequently sought advice from the European Court of Justice.
The Council separately asked for advice after CNIL decided not to order Google to remove links from internet search results based on the names of four individuals.
These included a satirical photomontage of a female politician, an article referring to someone as a public relations officer of the Church of Scientology, the placing under investigation of a male politician and the conviction of someone for sexual assaults against minors.
CNIL said it would comply with Tuesday’s ruling.