Round 1, Fight!

Round 1, Fight!

As it is well-known, the ‘right to be forgotten’ ruling extended the possibilities foreseen under the current EU Data Protection Directive for data subjects to exercise their rights to erasure of data and to object to personal data processing with regard to search engine services providers, which were deemed as controllers.

Therefore, facing a deletion request, search engines will have to decide on the balance of the rights at stake, namely freedom of expression and right to privacy, weighing up whether it is in the public interest for the information indexed in its search results to remain.

From the very beginning, the public opinion thrived both with enthusiasm and concern. The main question was: how would the decision be enforced? Isn’t the removal of links to legal and accurate information damaging for freedom of speech and right to access to the information? The debate was mostly vivacious between free speech advocates and privacy campaigners and hasn’t faded away with the course of time. The firsts insist that it will lead to a whitewashing of the past, whereas the latter uphold that it will enable individuals to limit the visibility of some personal information.

Google, despite affirming that the enforcement of the ruling could hamper free speech, alerting for the potential abuse of those looking for the deletion of important information and complaining that the ruling requirements for conformity were vague and subjective, started dealing (efficiently?) with the astonishing amount of requests for suppression of links received, rejecting some and admitting others.

In fact, Google says it has received approximately 143,000 requests, related to 491,000 links, to take down links in the last five months, involving everything from serious criminal records to embarrassing photos and negative press stories. Considering the data revealed by Google itself, the company has refused about 30 per cent of demands and about 50 per cent were taken down. According to its online transparency report, Google has removed more links to content on Facebook from its search results than from any other site. In this regard, Reputation VIP — the company that provided Forget.me, the first “Right To Be Forgotten” Removal Service – outlined that, ironically, most requests do not refer to unflattering or inaccurate web pages written by third parties, but, instead, to content authored by the requestor.

Google even set up an advisory committee to handle the requests. This council is headed by the company’s executive chairman, Eric Schmidt, and chief legal officer, David Drummond, and includes academics, technologists, legal experts and a journalist.

Most recently, Google decided to launch a public debate regarding the balance to be achieved between a person’s right to be forgotten and the public’s right to information. To that end, it organized a grand tour of hearings across Europe and has been on the road for about a month now.

The good intentions beneath this initiative failed to convince everyone. For instance, Isabelle Falque-Pierrotin, who heads the Article 29 Working Party, which gathers all 28 EU national data protection authorities, didn’t hesitate to share her scepticism about the Google initiative, which she described as part of a “PR war”:

Google is trying to set the terms of the debate. They want to be seen as being open and virtuous, but they handpicked the members of the council, will control who is in the audience, and what comes out of the meetings.

Although I do not share such a pessimist viewpoint of the initiative, I actually also have some doubts regarding the openness and transparency that it is intended. Indeed, when the public debate was firstly announced, I expected that it would allow for a better understanding Google’s current processes for dealing with requests. But, as far as I am aware, hearings have centred themselves in abstract and rather philosophical discussions.

Considering the ongoing negotiations regarding the EU data protection reform, already well advanced, the question which should be asked is: how much could the ruling and Google’s efforts in fact influence the direction of the discussions?

According to the European Commission’s initial proposal, the right to be forgotten would be built on the right to erasure of personal data and the right to object to data processing operations, which already exist under the current Data Protection Directive. Therefore, the data subject could exercise the right against the original data controller when and if: the data is no longer necessary; consent is withdrawn or when the storage period has expired; the data subject objects to the processing on specified grounds; or the processing is no longer valid on some other ground. Freedom of expression was among the exemptions foreseen.

The European Parliament was quite favourable to this proposal, having voted its opinion  last spring. However, it ensured that the right could also be exercised directly against third parties and the possibility to exercise the right following an order by a court or regulatory authority.

The Council of the European Union had already discussed the issue before but decided to suspend the respective debates in order to wait for the CJEU’s ruling. However, negotiations regarding other issues of the reform kept going and Member States even agreed on partial general approach since then.

An afterwards statement issued by the Italian Presidency made clear that the provision concerning the right to erasure would take into account principles set out by the CJEU. Indeed, the revised version issued recently left no doubt about it.

I thought this utterly confusing as it is for the Council of the European Union and for the European Parliament, as co-legislators, to make the law as it will stand in the future and for the CJEU to interpret the law as it exists. To take into account the judicial interpretation of the law that we are about to replace for the definition of the upcoming legislation is, in my opinion, quite puzzling. The ruling should not dictate the content or drafting of the future Regulation.

Nevertheless, something has to be done regarding the enforcement of the ruling. As things stand at the moment, it has been up to Google to determine the balance between the conflicting interests at stake. The criteria as defined by the CJEU are undoubtedly insufficient.

And if the ruling shall be taken into account regarding the upcoming legislation regarding anything, it most certainly has to address the scope of the right to be forgotten, the grounds on which it can be exercised and the need to balance this right with the freedom of information, as the judgement itself doesn’t establish with rigour how it shall be applied in practice.

In this context, it must be noted that the regulation has a horizontal nature and, thus, is intended to be applied to all controllers, independently of their nature. Search engines are not the specific aim of the future legislation although, as controllers, they are covered by its scope.

Regarding the scope, one may wonder if the distinction made by the European Commission between personal data which have been initially disclosed or uploaded by the data subject and the personal data which have been disclosed by third-parties will be kept.

Moreover, as it seems that there is no doubt that search engines – now considered as controllers – may receive deletion requests, it is important to clarify what about providers of social media, as Facebook, for instance, where it is possible to argue that the processing is based on consent or a contract.

As for the grounds on which the right can be exercised, I think it won’t be easy to determine who will be required to conduct the assessment in order to consider if the initially lawful processing of accurate data became unnecessary, inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant, or excessive in the light of the purposes for which they were collected or processed and of the time it has elapsed. Who is better suited for that role: search engines or the first controller?

In this context, one cannot assume that, if the initial processing is lawful, that the second processing is also legal. There might be cases where both might have reached different outcomes of lawfulness. What then?

Furthermore, should requests for deletion be addressed directly to the controller? Should they be addressed, instead, to the supervisory authority? Or to the competent courts? And if so, which court would be the competent one?

In addition, should the data subject have the right to choose any of the controllers to exercise the right to be forgotten and erasure? I believe that, at least theoretically, it should be possible for the data subject to exercise the rights against the processing carried out by the search engine before, after or independently from exercising the same or other rights against the original controller. But one should bear in mind that it is quite unrealistic to ask operators of search engines to track information and replication of data across the web.

As we can see, many questions are yet to find their answers.

The most popular is:

How will be the right to the protection or personal data fairly articulated with the right to freedom of expression?

Understandably, certain Member States have shown legitimate concerns regarding the freedom of expression and the interest of the public at large to have access to information, which may end up being underweight in the balancing process. So the debates are currently ongoing.

One of the big issues at stake is that, according to the spirit of the founding treaties, the conciliation of the right to the protection of personal data and the freedom of expression should remain in Member States’ legislative power. This implies that the European co-legislative institutions, the Council of the European Union and the European Parliament, are not entitled to regulate in detail this matter. However, if it is up to Member States to reconcile the two potentially conflicting rights, nor harmonization nor a unified application of law is ensured.

In this context, it will be important to delineate the concept of ‘public interest’ and ‘public figure’, which scope is not satisfactorily developed in data protection due to the swiftly evolved digital era.

Moreover, it will be important to establish that bloggers and individuals generally expressing themselves online fall within the scope of the ‘freedom of expression’ exception, even if they are not professional journalists. After all, article 11 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union establishes that everyone has the right to freedom of expression, including the freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas, establishing the freedom and pluralism of the media.

On another level, and as it is well-known, Google has been systematically alerting websites when it cuts links to their pages from results presented based on searches for a person’s name, which is in line with the European Commission’s proposal. But should search engines be barred to inform publishers, as Google has been doing, when articles have been delisted from search results? Are they cases where it would be appropriate to involve a publisher? Which ones?

These notifications are mostly problematical due to the possibility of republication, which could cause additional harm or distress for the data subject. And indeed, it often leads to a republication of a version which indicates what URLs are being removed from the search index.

In my opinion, it is preferable for the data subject that the search engine, as a second controller, contacts the controller which has firstly published the information (preliminary controller), as, otherwise, it might not be always easy to establish the correct balance.

In parallel, Google has unilaterally restricted the deletion of internet links to European websites only, for instance Google.es, Google.de, Google.uk… Well, you get the idea… But shouldn’t the removal be global, considering the very nature of Internet? Shouldn’t links be removed from all versions of Google, such as Google.com? This is particularly important considering that most of European users of the search engine use local domains, rather than referring to google.com.

The Justice and Home Affairs Council gathered in Luxembourg, on the 10th of October, to discuss the regulation and directive. A partial general approach on chapter IV of the general data protection regulation, which deals with the obligations for data controllers and processors, was agreed. There is, nevertheless, still plenty to be agreed on, so one may wonder if the deadline established by the incoming European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker for the end of negotiations – within six months of the commission starting work – will be enforceable.

Meanwhile, the Article 29 Working Party is preparing some guidelines which will set out a common record to deal with different types of appeals coming in from citizens. To that end, it has met with media and search engine companies, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo, to gather their views on how to strike a balance between the freedom of information and privacy. The guidelines are expected to be finalized by the end of November.

Considering the current state of play, let’s hope that some thorny questions would have been answered by then…