Google and data protection: no such thing as the ‘right to be forgotten’

Chris Knight has blogged recently about enforcement action against Google by European Data Protection authorities (but not yet the UK’s ICO). I blogged last month about a German case (BGH, VI ZR 269/12 of 14th May 2013) concerning Google’s ‘autocomplete’ function, and earlier this year about the Google Spain case (Case C‑131/12). The latter arises out of complaints made to that authority by a number of Spanish citizens whose names, when Googled, generated results linking them to allegedly false, inaccurate or out-of-date information (contrary to the data protection principles) – for example an old story mentioning a surgeon’s being charged with criminal negligence, without mentioning that he had been acquitted. The Spanish authority ordered Google to remove the offending entries. Google challenged this order, arguing that it was for the authors or publishers of those websites to remedy such matters. The case was referred to the CJEU by the Spanish courts.

Advocate General Jääskinen this week issued his opinion in this case.

The first point concerns territorial jurisdiction. Google claims that no processing of personal data relating to its search engine takes place in Spain. Google Spain acts merely as commercial representative of Google for its advertising functions. In this capacity it has taken responsibility for the processing of personal data relating to its Spanish advertising customers. The Advocate General has disagreed with Google on this point. His view is that national data protection legislation is applicable to a search engine provider when it sets up in a member state, for the promotion and sale of advertising space on the search engine, an office which orientates its activity towards the inhabitants of that state.

The second point is substantive, and is good news for Google. The Advocate General says that Google is not generally to be considered – either in law or in fact – as a ‘data controller’ of the personal data appearing on web pages it processes. It has no control over the content included on third party web pages and cannot even distinguish between personal data and other data on those pages.

Thirdly, the Advocate General tells us that there is no such thing as the so-called “right to be forgotten” (a favourite theme of debates on the work-in-progress new Data Protection Regulation) under the current Directive. The Directive offers accuracy as to safeguards and so on, but Google had not itself said anything inaccurate here. At paragraph 108 of his opinion, the Advocate General says this:

“… I consider that the Directive does not provide for a general right to be forgotten in the sense that a data subject is entitled to restrict or terminate dissemination of personal data that he considers to be harmful or contrary to his interests. The purpose of processing and the interests served by it, when compared to those of the data subject, are the criteria to be applied when data is processed without the subject’s consent, and not the subjective preferences of the latter. A subjective preference alone does not amount to a compelling legitimate ground within the meaning of Article 14(a) of the Directive.”

It remains to be seen of course whether the Court agrees with the Advocate General. The territorial issue and the ‘data controller’ question are of great significance to Google’s business model – and to those whose businesses face similar issues. The point about objectivity rather than subjectivity being the essential yardstick for compliance with data protection standards is potentially of even wider application.

“This is a good opinion for free expression,” Bill Echikson, a spokesman for Google, said in an e-mailed statement reported by Bloomberg.

Robin Hopkins