ECJ rules right-to-be-forgotten principle applicable to search engines

Patrick Van Eecke & Anthony Cornette

In a landmark ruling, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) has ruled that search engines, as a principle, need to remove the link between search results and a webpage if it contains information the individual deems should be ‘forgotten’.

In short, the court decided that: (1) indexing information by a search engine is the ‘processing of personal data’; (2) Google is a ‘controller’ of personal data; (3) Spanish data protection law is applicable, even if indexing happens in the US; (4) Google should remove links to webpages containing personal data, even if the webpages themselves are lawful; (5) a fair balance should be sought between the legitimate interests of search engine users and the privacy rights of individuals; and (6) the right to be forgotten is recognised by the Court of Justice.

The facts of the case are the following. In 1998, a major Spanish newspaper published two short announcements about a real-estate auction due to social security debts of a Spanish citizen. In 2009, this person contacted the newspaper, complaining that the announcements appeared in Google searches of his name. He argued that the search results were damaging his reputation and that the attachment proceedings relating to his social security debts had been resolved many years ago. He asked the newspaper to block the pages with the announcements from being indexed by search engines. The newspaper declined to remove the offending content, stating that publication had been ordered by the Spanish government. The publication is intended to give maximum publicity to the auction in order to attract as many bidders as possible…

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