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E.U. court restricts internet privacy rules

Europe's top court ruled E.U.'s digital privacy rules do not require Google to delete links to outdated or embarrassing info outside its 28-nation bloc.

Europe's top court ruled on Tuesday that E.U.'s digital privacy rules do not require Google and other search engines to honor people's requests to delete links to outdated or embarrassing information outside its 28-nation bloc.

The ruling by the Court of Justice of the European Union, or CJEU, gave Google a big victory in a closely-watched case over the E.U.'s "right to be forgotten."

The case involved France's privacy watchdog CNIL fining Google 100,000 euros in 2016 for refusing to globally remove links to pages containing damaging or false information about a person. Google introduced a geo-blocking feature in 2016 to stop Europeans from seeing delisted links, but declined to block those search results among people elsewhere in the world.

Despite the globalized nature of today's world, the court said in its ruling the “right to be forgotten” online does not extend beyond the E.U.'s borders. That right, which CNIL wanted to have extended worldwide, stems from a 2014 legal ruling that search engines must honor people's request to delete their embarrassing or out-of-date information. The ruling involved a Spanish man who could not delete an auction notice of his repossessed home.

"There is no obligation under E.U. law for a search engine operator who grants a request for de-referencing made by a data subject, as the case may be, following an injunction from a supervisory or judicial authority of a member state, to carry out such a de-referencing on all the versions of its search engine," the court said.

Search engine operators, however, must "seriously discourage" internet users from trying to go onto versions of their web pages outside the E.U. to find that deleted information, the court said. “The balance between right to privacy and protection of personal data, on the one hand, and the freedom of information of internet users, on the other, is likely to vary significantly around the world,” it said.

Google has honored about 45% of all the 845,501 E.U. "right to be forgotten" requests in the past five years by deleting 1.3 million links from its search results, according to the tech company's transparency report. The content remains online, but is no longer associated with a person's name.

The court noted Google and other search engines can still voluntarily comply with global requests. "Lastly, the court points out that, while E.U. law does not currently require a de-referencing to be carried out on all versions of the search engine, it also does not prohibit such a practice," CJEU said.

As a result, it said, E.U. member nations can "weigh up, in the light of national standards of protection of fundamental rights, a data subject’s right to privacy and the protection of personal data concerning him or her, on the one hand, and the right to freedom of information, on the other, and, after weighing those rights against each other, to order, where appropriate, the operator of that search engine to carry out a de-referencing concerning all versions of that search engine."

User privacy vs. freedom of speech

The case shows the contrast between how Europeans and Americans approach digital privacy. In the United States, where the First Amendment guarantees free speech and press freedom, there are no similar "right to erasure" laws.

In May 2018, Europe’s new data protection rules took effect. They require businesses, consumers and international organizations that process personal data to respect people's privacy. The General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR, focuses on activity within the E.U.’s 508 million population and the Agreement on the European Economic Area countries of Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway.

Google welcomed Tuesday's ruling. “Since 2014, we’ve worked hard to implement the right to be forgotten in Europe, and to strike a sensible balance between people’s rights of access to information and privacy," Peter Fleischer, Google’s senior privacy counsel, said in a statement.

“It’s good to see that the court agreed with our arguments, and we’re grateful to the independent human rights organizations, media associations and many others around the world who also presented their views to the court,” he said.

Freedom of expression organization ARTICLE 19, which had intervened in the case, called the court ruling a victory for freedom of expression. It said the court followed its recommendations by ruling that search engines such as Google will not be compelled to apply the "right to be forgotten" globally.

“This ruling is a victory for global freedom of expression. Courts or data regulators in the U.K., France or Germany should not be able to determine the search results that internet users in America, India or Argentina get to see," Thomas Hughes, Article 19's executive director, said in a statement.

"The court is right to state that the balance between privacy and free speech should be taken into account when deciding if websites should be de-listed — and also to recognize that this balance may vary around the world," he said. "It is not right that one country’s data protection authorities can impose their interpretation on Internet users around the world.”