Google Confronting Spain’s “Right To Be Forgotten”

In a case that could have EU-wide implications a Spanish court is asking Google to remove data about a private individual from its index. This is known in Spain and elsewhere in Europe as “the right to be forgotten.”

The immediate case at hand involves a Spanish plastic surgeon who was featured in a critical profile by newspaper El Pais in 1991. The underlying dispute between the surgeon and his patient was resolved and it’s not clear from an article in the Wall Street Journal how meritorious the claims were or precisely how the dispute was resolved. The doctor is still practicing, and therein lies the problem.

When users do a search on “Dr. Guidotti Russo” the critical article comes up on page one of Google, with potential economic consequences for the plastic surgeon. Accordingly he wants to get that article removed from the Google index and the Spanish court and Spanish Data Protection Authority are backing him.

Google is fighting and arguing that Spanish privacy regulators have exceeded their authority and that the move amounts to censorship. The crazy thing is that the newspaper itself isn’t being asked to take down the article — just Google.

The dispute raises the question of how much control individuals should have over what appears about them online (mostly in Google it would appear). As the WSJ points out there’s a “right to be forgotten” movement in Europe that may be codified:

A movement has cropped in parts of Europe to create a “right to be forgotten,” which would let individuals excise personal information from the Web on privacy grounds. The European Commission, as part of its data-protection overhaul, has proposed recognizing such a right. France’s Senate has also approved similar proposals, which have yet to be ratified by the National Assembly.

The Spanish Data Protection Authority has ruled that freedom-of-expression rules in Spain, which cover newspapers and other publishers, don’t apply to search engines. However in earlier decisions the privacy regulator has labeled Google a “publisher” and held that libel laws that apply to newspapers equally apply to Google. These two positions would appear to directly contradict one another.

The “right to be forgotten” rules may become law in the next two years as the EU’s privacy policies get overhauled. It appears that most EU regulators are sympathetic to the “right to be forgotten” concept. How it would be implemented and what the duties and burdens imposed on online publishers and search engines would be is somewhat unclear. That’s where it would get messy.

If the plastic surgeon was wrongly accused and the article has compromised his ability to make a living, one can understand the frustration and desire to get the article out of Google’s index. But there are other ways to address what is essentially an SEO and PR problem.

The EU should tread carefully so as not to create a bureaucratic nightmare where individuals and, by extension, companies could exercise censorship control over what appears about them online and in search results. On balance the “right to know” (especially where entities and public figures are involved) should trump the novel “right to be forgotten.”

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Google: Critics | Google: Legal | Google: Outside US | Google: SEO | Google: Web Search | Top News


About The Author: is a Contributing Editor at Search Engine Land. He writes a personal blog Screenwerk, about SoLoMo issues and connecting the dots between online and offline. He also posts at Internet2Go, which is focused on the mobile Internet. Follow him @gsterling.

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  • Carl Eisenstein

    He already has every right to be forgotten: sue El Pais for libel, prove that he shouldn’t have a bad mark against his name, get them to take down the article, and pretty soon Google will forget about that page. Ridiculous – people just don’t understand… well… life sometimes! It’s not a techy thing.

  • scottclark

    @carl – not always possible. I have a client who was simply accused of a crime, later vindicated. Another who was fined for an administrative snafu – paid is debt.

    The accusatory documents are presented by the State govt. in question in public court records. They rank #1 on Google due to the high authority of the .gov/.state sites and the uniqueness of this persons’ name.

    Both of these people must constantly explain the situation. It’s caused them both to go through economic hardship. The states do not listen to requests for removal. In fact, the states didn’t even know the docs appeared on Google.

  • Carl Eisenstein

    @scottclark: Time for some reputation management services! :)

    I still think though – in the modern world where data can be found so easily – there should be a requirement in cases like that for the state to have a big ‘person acquitted’ banner at the top or similar. I understand the frustration of the people you mention, and can see where the difficulty lies, but I don’t think it’s up to Google to judge whether someone is guilty or not and accordingly censor the search results. The onus should be on the person, company or authority publishing the information.

    After all – are they also going to subsequently sue Bing, Yahoo and Ask? It’s not realistic or practical.

    This guy’s legal complaint should be with El Pais. The people you mentioned should have a complaint against the state. Just because you can find that document on Google isn’t grounds for complaint IMHO.

  • nuttynupur

    Very interesting. The doctor can publish his side of the story online, then see whether it comes up in results?

  • FM

    This is starting to be emplyed by celebrities as a reputation shaping tool out here in Italy, just for deleting this and that even when totally independent from any previous legal confrontation on the matter.

  • alfonsan

    I’m from Spain and I would like to add that “El Pais” is a newspaper owned by a large media company called “Prisa” backed up by current Spanish government, that makes it quite difficult to take action against them, unfortunately in Spain the division of power don’t work very well, we are not a third world country but we still have work left to do..

    That doctor prefers to take action against a foreign company rather than one of the pro government media groups.

    I also remember Google’s CEO talking at Colbert show that SEs have to forgive while humans don’t. I know they have to forgive what is no longer available in the web, but shall they forgive very old and outdated documents no longer relevant but still available in the web?

  • Flemming

    Cases like this make you wonder, how about public libraries that store newspapers from many years ago – should acces to theese be forbidden too?
    Or is it just a question from the legislators about how easy the information is to acces?

    Regulations like the proposed is the wrong way to go about it in modern society, but seems to be the way we are heading.
    If in doubt, just look at the cookie regulations which are right now passing through the EU parliament.

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