Court could force Google to de-list ‘sensitive’ links in search results

Google is braced for a landmark privacy ruling that could force it to wipe its search results of links to personal information.

Five years ago, the EU Court of Justice (ECJ) made it a requirement for the tech giant to delete links that led to sensitive details if asked to do so – but it only covered Europe.

That case was brought by French privacy watchdog CNIL, and meant that Google had to remove information such as criminal convictions from its search results upon request.

The case is being heard by the European Court of Justice
Image: The case is being heard by the European Court of Justice

One example saw a businessman win an “unprecedented” High Court bid to have a past crime he committed to not come up in search results.

Judges are now considering whether that so-called “right to be forgotten” decision should be applied globally, with a decision due to be made in Luxembourg on Tuesday.

Google is hoping that the backing of ECJ adviser Maciej Szpunar will be enough to win the second case.

Mr Szpunar, a Polish lawyer, said earlier this year that the right to be forgotten should only apply in Europe – and judges rarely stray from their official legal advice.

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Experts have also warned that ruling in favour of CNIL for a second time may embolden authoritarian governments to demand the removal of any topic they want.

Richard Cumbley, a partner at law firm Linklaters, said: “This would create a serious clash with US concepts of freedom of speech – and other states might also try and suppress search results on a global basis, reducing Google’s search engine to a list of the anodyne and inoffensive.”

Thomas Hughes, executive director of British human rights organisation Article 19, said: “Courts or data regulators in one country should not be able to determine the search results that internet users around the world get to see.

“When making a decision to de-list websites, they need to strike a proper balance between the right to freedom of expression and other rights.

“We hope that the court will limit the scope of the right to be forgotten in order to protect global freedom of expression and prevent the EU from setting a precedent for censorship that could be exploited by other countries.”

Google, which remains the most popular search engine in the world, has also warned about the potential dangers of over-reach by the European court.

In a blog post two years ago, the company said there should be a balance between sensitive personal data and the public interest, and that no one country should be able to impose its rules on citizens of another.

Google has previously been fined €100,000 (£88,284) by CNIL for failing to comply with the original ruling.

The company revealed in a report that it has removed 45% of the 3.3 million links it has been asked to remove, spanning more than 845,000 requests, since 2014.

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