Google wins case over reach of EU 'right to be forgotten'

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BRUSSELS — Google won a major case in the European Union on Tuesday, when the bloc's top court ruled that the U.S. internet giant doesn't have to extend the EU's "right to be forgotten" rules to its search engines outside the region.

The case stems from a 2014 ruling that said people have the right to control what appears when their name is searched online. They can ask Google, for example, to remove a link. The French privacy regulator then wanted that rule applied to all of Google's domains, even outside the EU, and asked the EU's top court for advice.

The European Court of Justice said Tuesday that there "is no obligation under EU law for a search engine operator" to extend the rule beyond the EU states.

It said, however, that a search engine operator must put measures in place to discourage internet users from going outside the EU to find that information.

The decision, which matches a preliminary opinion in January from the court's adviser, highlights the need to balance data privacy and protection concerns against the public's right to information. It also raises questions about how to enforce differing jurisdictions when it comes to the borderless internet.

In a reaction to the ruling, Google's Senior Privacy Counsel Peter Fleischer said "it's good to see that the Court agreed with our arguments" and added that Google had worked hard "to strike a sensible balance between people's rights of access to information and privacy."

The European Commission noted that the court again confirmed that the "right to be forgotten" exists in the EU.

The 2014 ruling that people in the EU have the right to control what appears when their name is searched online forced Google to delete links to outdated or embarrassing personal information that popped up in searches within the 28-nation bloc.

One year later, the French privacy watchdog wanted Google to remove results on all its search engines on request, and not just European country sites like . Google refused and in the resulting court case, French legal authorities asked the EU's highest court for advice.

On Tuesday, the EU court said it was illegal to apply an EU rule to business operations in countries outside the EU.

The ruling is final and becomes the benchmark on which courts in the 28-nation bloc must base their decisions relating to such cases.

Those who wanted to see such an extension argue that on the internet it is easy to switch from the national versions of the web site to ones outside the EU - by switching from to for example - to find the information that must be removed within the EU.

Since Google started handling "right to be forgotten" requests in May 2014, the U.S. tech giant has removed about 1.3 million web links from its search results, or 45% of total requests processed, according to the company's transparency report .

Online takedown requests filed by European residents are reviewed by Google staff, based mainly in Ireland, who consider factors such as whether the webpage solely concerns sensitive information such as race, religion, sexual religion; relates to children or crimes committed as a minor; or is about old convictions, acquittals, or false accusations.

In one request last year, Google delisted a 1984 German news article about an individual's conviction for hijacking an East German airplane to try to flee to West Germany, because it was "very old" and related to now-repealed laws against unlawful emigration, according to the transparency report. Other delisted links include pages about a former politician involved in a drug scandal because it disclosed his home address and other pages about convictions for rapes, sexual abuse and aiding and abetting terrorism because the offenders had served their sentences.

Google notes that it's not removing pages wholesale from its results — they're only delisted for a person's name but will still show up for other search terms found on that page.

Google says it may reject a delisting request if the page contains information that's "strongly in the public interest." That can include material on public figures that relates to the requester's professional life, past crime, political office, position in public life. It can also say no if the content consists of government documents or "journalistic in nature."


Kelvin Chan in London contributed to this report.


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