Mario Costeja González is happy. The European Court of Justice has found in his favour, ruling that an internet search engine operator is responsible for its processing of personal data that appear on web pages published by third parties. Or to phrase it as he does, the court has found he was “right”.
González has not yet made comment on the ironic Streisand effect of the judgment.
A Google news search for his name now returns over 2,000 results. Searching Google for his name alone returns over 70,000 results. And I’m about to add to these. The court has ruled for the removal of the links to the original article. However, the details of the 1998 repossession and the ensuing court case are widely discussed in articles across the web. Many of these news articles are indexed on google. For González the resulting publicity is secondary in a “fight for ideals”.
Reception to the judgment has been split. Some see the ruling as endorsing acts of censorship and as a move against freedom of information. For others the judgment was the next logical step for Europe in its clear stance on data protection issues. González’s result will now impact on 200 similar cases in the Spanish courts, many of which concern index results on Google.
It is not true that the judgment will allow people to rewrite history. Search engines such as Google are “data controllers”. They have an obligation in the EU to remove data that is “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant”. However, news outlets and others with journalistic responsibilities have no such obligation and will be protected as media under EU law. The Spanish newspaper La Vanguardia will retain the article on repossession on its website. Rather, it will be a case of returning to the old days of sifting through archives and dusty collections, or the online equivalent, rather than reverting to the powerful one-search-box on Google.
The most interesting and overlooked aspect of the case is the use of the term “public interest”. The Court observed that as a general rule the data subject’s rights override the interest of internet users. However, an important factor to be considered is “the interest of the public in having that information”. The Court noted that this interest may vary according to the “role played by the data subject in public life”.
The public interest balance is intriguing since a person’s status is not stagnant. A person may suffer a wave of fame and then return to relative obscurity. In this scenario, how is “public interest” determined? Will requests to remove links from a person once well-known who has now retired from the public eye be granted?
The Agencia Española de Protección de Datos requested that Google take the necessary measures to withdraw the data from its index and to render access to the data impossible in the future. The phrase “render access to the data impossible in the future” can seem at odds with the balance of public interest. A 24-year-old graduate may request the removal of an irrelevant link to an embarrassing photo of a university club he was a member of. If decades later this graduate becomes Prime Minister, is it in the public interest that access to that data is impossible? Who hasn’t glanced on the Bullingdon Club photo with interest if nothing else?
Search engines and websites such as Facebook can provide an overview of a person’s existence. Data is provided in a uniform way, muddling past experiences occurrences and mistakes with the current. There has been no possibility for public revelations to become “spent” and disappear into obscurity. This ruling offers a chance of change. The counter-argument is that a person, any person, may one day become a figure of public interest, at which point that irrelevant data may become relevant. After all, we are now all familiar with the name Mario Costeja González.