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ICO orders Google to remove links to right to be forgotten takedowns

The Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) says Google must remove newer links that reveal the same details as previously removed links

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has ordered Google to remove nine search results linking to news stories about the removal of information under the "right to be forgotten" ruling.

The ruling by the European Court of Justice states that, under European law, search engines are data controllers and must consider all requests to stop returning outdated information in search queries.

The UK privacy watchdog ordered the takedowns after it ruled that they linked to information about a person that was no longer relevant.

The ICO ruling concerns nine links that are part of the list of results displayed when a search is made by entering the individual’s name.

The links are to web pages that include details of a minor criminal offence committed by the individual almost ten years ago.

Google had previously removed links relating to the criminal offence following a request from the individual.

But the removal of those links then itself became a news story and links to these later news stories, which repeated details of the original criminal offence, were then part of the results displayed when searching for the complainant’s name on Google.

That phenomenon became known as the Streisand Effect after actress Barbra Streisand, who – in suing for the removal of aerial images of her California home from the internet – unwittingly spurred internet users to find it.

Journalistic interests

Google had refused the complainant’s request for these later links to be removed from search results, arguing that these links were to articles that concerned one of its decisions to delist a search result and that the articles were an essential part of a recent news story relating to a matter of significant public importance.

The ICO said its ruling recognised journalistic content relating to decisions to delist search results may be newsworthy and in the public interest. But the ruling confirms that this does not justify including links to that content when a Google search is made by entering the affected individual’s name, as this has an “unwarranted and negative impact on the individual’s privacy” and is a breach of the Data Protection Act.

Deputy commissioner David Smith said the European court ruling in May 2014 was clear that links prompted by searching on an individual’s name are subject to data protection rules.

“That means they shouldn’t include personal information that is no longer relevant,” he said

Takedown requests were reportedly submitted within a day of the European court ruling, forcing Google to scramble to introduce an online application form for Europeans who wanted personal data to be removed from online search results.

Smith said it is wrong of Google to refuse to remove newer links that reveal the same details and have the same negative impact as the previously removed links.

“Let’s be clear. We understand that links being removed as a result of this court ruling is something that newspapers want to write about. And we understand that people need to be able to find these stories through search engines like Google. But that does not need them to be revealed when searching on the original complainant’s name,” he said.

Read more about the right to be forgotten

The ICO has issued an enforcement notice requiring the links to be removed from the search results in 35 days.

Google has not responded to requests for comments on the ICO’s enforcement notice, according to the Guardian.

While the ICO’s enforcement order applies only in the UK, Wall Street Journal blogger Sam Schechner said it could provide an example for other countries, potentially provoking a new wave of takedown requests of stories about takedown requests – and a subsequent wave of stories about those new requests.

“That will also give ammunition to free speech advocates and privacy activists in their tussle over where to draw the line between privacy and the public’s right to know–and whether Google should be notifying websites of removals under the right to be forgotten,” he wrote.

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