EU Court Tells Google That People Have 'The Right To Be Forgotten'

Europe's highest court has issued a landmark decision against Google, ruling that people can go directly to Google and request that the search engine delete certain results about them. For more information, Audie Cornish turns to Meg Ambrose, a professor of communication, culture, and technology at Georgetown University.

Copyright © 2014 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. We begin this hour with technology and privacy rights, specifically, what's called the right to be forgotten. It's the idea that people should be able to control how much of their personal data is on the Internet. And today, the European Union's top court issued a major decision in favor of that right. That decision came against Google. The court ruled that Europeans can ask Google directly to remove certain content that comes up in search results about them. For more on the implications of this decision, we turn to Professor Meg Ambrose of Georgetown University. She's actually writing a book on this so-called right to be forgotten, and she joins us in studio. Welcome.

MEG AMBROSE: Hi.

CORNISH: So, give us a quick kind of sketch about the case that brought about the ruling. I understand it involved a man from Spain. He wanted to delete an auction notice of his home from a Spanish newspaper.

AMBROSE: That's right. Usually, the content that we talk about with the right to be forgotten is much more salacious. This guy wanted an old debt to be removed from his Google search results. He took his complaint to the Spanish Data Protection Agency, who determined that he did have a case for the right to be forgotten. And the agency ordered Google to remove links to that content. It moved through the courts as Google appealed it and the case that came down was shocking, I think, for most people.

CORNISH: And so what did the court have to say about this?

AMBROSE: The court ruled that Google was in fact a data controller. The way that search engines operate online qualified it as processing and controlling information, which means that it has to comply with the EU data protection directive.

CORNISH: And the problem for Google is that they don't see themselves as a controller?

AMBROSE: That's right. Google says all it does is point to things. They say that they are a machine that points you to the data that you're looking for. And the court disagreed with them.

CORNISH: So, how big a deal is this for Google and other search engines, for other even social networking firms? I mean, what's their concern here about having to, I guess, police content going forward?

AMBROSE: This places a huge burden on them. Anything a European Union citizen requests content about them to be removed from any - you know, think big, think Facebook, Twitter, Google, all the other search engines - to be removed, that company is going to have to consider that request with almost no guidance on what's the public interest, what are the rights of the data control, who are these people? So, it places a huge, huge burden on them but also gives them a lot of power.

CORNISH: What is the significance of the fact that this is coming down by the EU, essentially saying when you operate in our country, this is the rule you have to abide by, right? Like, this doesn't mean it somehow applies to users in the U.S.

AMBROSE: That's right. I can't get links taken off of Google because I'm an American citizen, so I don't have those European data protection rights. So, it really impacts me as a user if I was looking for that content and it impacts these companies. Other than that, I think it really just forces us to consider this giant question of whether we are more free to express ourselves in a world where data may be deleted or in a world where data lasts forever.

CORNISH: What are you seeing in the U.S.? What are the implications of this ruling for the U.S.?

AMBROSE: I don't know that there are many implications beyond compliance costs in the U.S.

CORNISH: Compliance costs for the companies.

AMBROSE: Exactly. That being said, there is really exciting stuff going on with the U.S. and the right to be forgotten. California passed a law giving minors the right to delete content that they posted online. And so we're having this conversation - right now we're having it in relation to kids but it will expand from there, I'm sure.

CORNISH: Meg Ambrose. She's an assistant professor of communication, culture and technology at Georgetown University. Thanks so much for talking with us.

AMBROSE: Thank you.

Copyright © 2014 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.