The European Court of Justice (ECJ) has ruled that individuals have the “right to be forgotten” under specific circumstances. They can ask search engines to remove results that refer to them in response to queries, on the ground that “those results are inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant, or excessive in relation to the purposes for which they were processed”. The case that triggered the ruling is illustrative of some of the confusion that can result in execution. Mario Costeja González, a lawyer based in Spain, was forced to auction a property he owned to settle a tax demand in 1998. A 36-word property auction notice was printed in a local daily and digitally archived. Online searches on González’s name led to links with the auction notice. In 2009, he began seeking ways to remove the link. His logic: he had paid the taxes and that notice gave a false impression of his current financial status. The ECJ agreed with him in principle.
Though the ruling only applies under ECJ jurisdiction, it can lead to similar judgments elsewhere. Many legal systems offer some version of the right to be forgotten where crimes committed by a minor are expunged from his or her adult record. But a digital request to be forgotten may lead to a conflict of interest where the individual’s right to privacy must be weighed against the public right to information. It can also impede historical research. Google has received about 41,000 requests to be forgotten and other search engines, such as Bing and Yahoo!, have also received such requests.
The content is not deleted if a request is upheld. Search engines remove links to the content from search results. Google says it will flag redactions under the right to be forgotten, alerting surfers to the fact that information has been removed. The similarities with Orwell’s fictive world where a person can become an “unperson” are obvious.