Is the right to be forgotten the right to rewrite your past?
In a landmark legal battle, a businessman has won the first “right to be forgotten” lawsuit against Google in the UK High Court. Eager to remove articles relating to his criminal conviction from search results, the claimant took the internet giant to court after they had rejected his initial request.
For Google, it certainly wasn’t the first of its kind.
When the European Court of Justice first established the right to be forgotten as in the online privacy statute of 2014, the floodgates were forced wide open for an ocean of similar requests to Google and other search engines. According to legislation, European citizens can petition search engine companies like Google to delist URLs from search results if the websites contain information that is inaccurate, irrelevant, and not in the public interest to keep available. So that’s exactly what he did.
The businessman, who had been convicted of conspiracy to intercept communications 10 years prior, had served a six-month sentence and was reportedly remorseful for his actions, according to Mr Justice Warby who made the ruling in London on Friday. But he wasn’t alone that day: in fact, the same judge had shot down a request from a second businessman who had been convicted of conspiracy to account falsely in the late 1990s and served a four-year sentence.
Both cases raise an important and increasingly relevant question: should the right to be forgotten allow for criminals to rewrite their past? The answer, unsurprisingly, is far from straightforward. The law is still in it’s infancy, and with only weeks to go until the GDPR comes into force, creases such as these will need ironing out in order to establish a framework for such cases. Granting an appeal in the case of the first businessman, the judge added: “It is quite likely that there will be more claims of this kind, and the fact that [he] has succeeded is likely to reinforce that.”
So, could the outcome of this lawsuit set a precedent for future cases, and how can we determine whether information is “irrelevant”? It’s here that we get into muddy waters: suddenly, Google must weigh up the seriousness of the crimes committed by those submitting requests and their willingness to reform. This could prove challenging, since there is not a set rule that defines at which point a crime becomes too serious to hide from search results.
“But Antony White QC, representing Google, argued the ECJ’s “right to be forgotten” ruling was “not a right to rewrite history or … tailor your past if that’s what this claimant would like to use it for.”
Jamie Grierson and Ben Quinn
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