Google Scores Big Win in EU "Right to Be Forgotten" Legal Fight

Under European Union law, the tech giant is only obligated to de-reference sites for its search engines connected to EU member states.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The European Union's judicial branch has ruled Google isn't required to de-list information globally under the region's so-called "right to be forgotten" law. 

The right to be forgotten allows European citizens to have their personal information effectively erased from search engines under certain circumstances. This fight began in 2015, when Google refused to de-list pages on its domains outside the EU. Search results wouldn't appear from Google.fr (France) but would from Google.ca (Canada), for example. In March 2016, the French Data Protection Authority fined the company about $100,000 for refusing and Google asked France's Council of State to annul the penalty, arguing that the right to erasure isn't geographically boundless.

The council turned to the Court of Justice of the European Union, which interprets EU law for courts of the member states upon request. On Tuesday, the CJEU issued its opinion on the matter and sided with Google, noting that "the right to the protection of personal data is not an absolute right, but must be considered in relation to its function in society and be balanced against other fundamental rights." 

The court notes that numerous countries don't recognize a right to be forgotten, and balancing the right to privacy and protection of personal data and the right of internet users to freely access information is a difficult task. It found that it is "in no way apparent" from the wording of the law that the EU legislature meant to extend the right to de-referencing "beyond the territory of the Member States."

"[T]here 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," states the judgment. 

Because a user in France could theoretically circumvent the de-listing by searching Google's Canadian site, the court determined that search engine operators should take "sufficiently effective measures" that "have the effect of preventing or, at the very least, seriously discouraging internet users in the Member States from gaining access to the links in question using a search conducted on the basis of that data subject’s name."

Since the dispute began, the judgment notes, Google has revamped its search engines so that an internet user is automatically directed to the national version of the site that's appropriate using geo-location. The CJEU is leaving it up to the French court to determine whether that's a sufficiently effective measure.

Read the full ruling here