The Man Who Google Forgot

This week, our human rights stories are about the right to privacy.

Time heals. Things happen that may sear us with embarrassment – but as time ticks and memory fades, we move on.

Mario Costeja Gonzalez wanted to move on. In 1998 he was ordered to publically auction his house to pay off his debts. In the 11th hour he settled his debts and the auction was called off. Mr. Costeja Gonzalez looked forward to putting this experience behind him.

This was easier said than done. His name became inseparable from the incident: the first Google result his name produced was of a newspaper article giving public notice of the auction.

Mr. Costeja Gonzalez wanted the search results deleted from Google. He claimed the search results undermined his privacy and career. The Court agreed with him and argued two important things.

First, the court rejected Google’s claim that it had no control over the information it used. The judges accepted that Google did not publish the news article. But they also said Google’s search engines substantially increased the article’s visibility and impact. Google therefore had control over information, because it had control over the visibility and impact of information. This meant Google’s activities were subject to European data protection laws.

Second, the judges ruled that European data protection laws meant Mr. Costeja Gonzales had a right to ask for the information to be removed. This is because there was no legitimate interest in this case for making his personal information public. Legitimate interests could include when the data is important for the public, or is about a public figure. In this case neither hold true.

This was not, strictly, a human rights case. It was fought over European Union law and data protection principles. It was also controversial, as the right to freedom of expression and the right to receive information were not mentioned by the court. It is unlikely that this is the last we hear of the right to be forgotten, but in the mean time the court’s order helped restore the passage of time and the fading of memories. It provided a restricted ‘right to be forgotten’ that allowed Mr. Costeja Gonzales, and many, many others, to move on.

This story is a short summary of a legal decision. You can read the full text here

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