Confused About “The Right to be Forgotten”. Was: Is Web Search is Getting Harder?

[Seems I forgot to post this, though I started drafting it on May 19th… Anyway, things seem to have moved on a bit…]

A search related story in the news last week reported on a ruling by the European Union Court of Justice that got wide billing as a “right to be forgotten” (eg BBC News: EU court backs ‘right to be forgotten’ in Google case).

Here’s another example of “censorship”? WordPress not allowing me to link to a URL because it insists on rewriting the & characters in it – here’s the actual link:


For stories like this, I try to look at the original ruling but also tend to turn to law blogs such as my colleague Ray Corrigan’s B2fxxx (though he hasn’t posted on this particular story yet?) or Pinsent Mason’s Out-law (eg Out-law: Google data protection ruling has implications for multi-faceted global businesses) to find out what was actually said.

Here’s the gist of the rulings:

  • “the activity of a search engine consisting in finding information published or placed on the internet by third parties, indexing it automatically, storing it temporarily and, finally, making it available to internet users according to a particular order of preference must be classified as ‘processing of personal data’ within the meaning of Article 2(b) when that information contains personal data and, second, the operator of the search engine must be regarded as the ‘controller’ in respect of that processing, within the meaning of Article 2(d).” So what? A person has a right to object to a data controller about the way their data is processed and can obtain “the rectification, erasure or blocking of data” because of its “incomplete or inaccurate nature”.
  • “processing of personal data is carried out in the context of the activities of an establishment of the controller on the territory of a Member State, within the meaning of that provision, when the operator of a search engine sets up in a Member State a branch or subsidiary which is intended to promote and sell advertising space offered by that engine and which orientates its activity towards the inhabitants of that Member State.” So Google was found to be “established” in EU member state territories. Are there any implications from that ruling regards tax situation, I wonder?
  • Insofar as the processing of personal data that has been subject to a successful objection goes, “the operator of a search engine is obliged to remove from the list of results displayed following a search made on the basis of a person’s name links to web pages, published by third parties and containing information relating to that person, also in a case where that name or information is not erased beforehand or simultaneously from those web pages, and even, as the case may be, when its publication in itself on those pages is lawful.” Note there are limits on this in the case of legitimate general public interest.
  • The final ruling seems to at least admit the possibility that folk can request data be taken down without them having to demonstrate that it is prejudicial to them? “when appraising the conditions for the application of those provisions, it should inter alia be examined whether the data subject has a right that the information in question relating to him personally should, at this point in time, no longer be linked to his name by a list of results displayed following a search made on the basis of his name, without it being necessary in order to find such a right that the inclusion of the information in question in that list causes prejudice to the data subject. As the data subject may, in the light of his fundamental rights under Articles 7 and 8 of the Charter, request that the information in question no longer be made available to the general public on account of its inclusion in such a list of results, those rights override, as a rule, not only the economic interest of the operator of the search engine but also the interest of the general public in having access to that information upon a search relating to the data subject’s name. “However, that would not be the case if it appeared, for particular reasons, such as the role played by the data subject in public life, that the interference with his fundamental rights is justified by the preponderant interest of the general public in having, on account of its inclusion in the list of results, access to the information in question.”.

[Update, July 2nd, 2014]
It seems as if things have moved on – Google is publishing notices in the territotry at least to the effect that “Some results may have been removed under data protection law in Europe” [my emphasis].


The FAQ describes what’s happening thus:

When you search for a name, you may see a notice that says that results may have been modified in accordance with data protection law in Europe. We’re showing this notice in Europe when a user searches for most names, not just pages that have been affected by a removal.

The media are getting uppity about it of course, eg Peston completely misses the point, as well as getting it wrong?


In fact, it seems as if the BBC themselves are doing a much better job of obliviating Peston from their own search results…


What all the hype this time around seems to be missing – as with the reporting around the original ruling – is the interpretation that the court ruled on about the behaviour of the search engines insofar as they are deemed to be processors of “personal data”. (Of course, these companies also process personal data as part of the business of operating user accounts, but the business functions – of managing user accounts versus operating a search index and returning search results from public queries applied to it – are presumably sandboxed as far as data protection legislation goes.)

If Google is deemed to be a data controller of personal data that is processed as a result of the way it operates its search index, it presumably means that I can make a subject access request about the data that the Google search index holds about me (as well as the subject access requests I can make to the bit of Google that operates the various Google accounts that I have registered).

As far as the loss of the “right to discover” that the hacks are banging on about as a consequence of “the right to be forgotten”, does this mean that Google is the start and end point of their research activity? (And also putting aside the point that most folk: a) don’t look past the first few results; b) are rubbish at searching. As far as search engine ranking algorithms go – erm, what sort of “truth” do you think reveal? How do you think Google ranks results? And how do you think it comparatively ranks content generated years ago (when links were more persistent than a brief appearance in Twitter feeds and Facebook streams) to content generated more recently (that doesn’t set up persistent link structures)?)

Don’t they use things like Nexis UK?

Or if anything other than Google is too hard, they can just edit the URL to use rather than

This is where it probably also starts to make sense to look back to the original ruling and spend some time reading it more closely. Is LexisNexis a data controller, subject to data protection legislation, based on it’s index of news media content? Are the indices it operates around court cases similarly covered?

Author: Tony Hirst

I'm a Senior Lecturer at The Open University, with an interest in #opendata policy and practice, as well as general web tinkering...

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