LUXEMBOURG – Google (GOOGL.O) does 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 pitted privacy rights against freedom of speech.
The victory for the U.S. 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.
The case has been viewed as a landmark test, in an age of an internet that knows no borders, of whether people can demand a blanket removal of information about themselves from searches without stifling free speech and legitimate public interest.
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 borders.
“Currently, there is no obligation under EU law, for a search engine operator who grants a request for de-referencing made by a data subject … to carry out such a de-referencing on all the versions of its search engine,” the Court of Justice of the European Union said in its ruling.
Google welcomed the decision, saying: “It’s good to see that the court agreed with our arguments.”
The world’s most popular 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, has since received 845,501 requests to remove links, and removed 45 percent 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 judgment, which 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,” it 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 recognize 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 euros ($109,790) 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.