For an agency that claims to be good with social media that might seem an alarming question to be asking. Today the European Court of Justice ruled in favour of a Spanish citizen who argued that Google should delete links relating to his house being auctioned because he failed to pay taxes. The Spanish courts upheld his complaint. It was later referred to the ECJ as Google refused to remove the content, arguing it was not responsible for deleting information published legally elsewhere.
At stake was whether search engines such as Google are simply hosting content, or actually “controllers” of personal data that are responsible for the results and information presented to users.
The judges found that Google is a “controller” in respect of processing data on its servers and that the “activity of a search engine is additional to that of publishers of websites, and is liable to affect significantly the fundamental rights to privacy and to the protection of personal data”.
Given this, the court concluded that Google is “obliged to remove links to web pages” in certain circumstances – even if the original content is legally published or not yet removed from the original site.
The court ruling said: “A data subject may address such a request directly to the operator of the search engine (the controller) which must then duly examine its merits”.
“Where the controller does not grant the request…the data subject may bring the matter before the supervisory authority or the judicial authority so that it carries out the necessary checks and orders the controller to take specific measures accordingly.”
This has been a key issue in UK libel law too. It will be interesting to see whether it spills over into analogous defamation cases. More importantly for PR would Google ever formally recognise any duty to remove content publicly.
This is fundamental to an individuals reputation. As we often say to clients – reputation is so often based on the top 10 search results which Google generates about you. Should any responsibility come with this lofty position in society? Should Parliament legislate on this – that is a much, much wider question.
He was formerly Head of Policy at the Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners (STEP). With degrees in history and economics from the Universities of Oxford and London, Jake is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, a trustee of the European Association of Philanthropy and Giving and advises several governments on public policy. He also advises clients on CSR and philanthropy activities.
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