Google victory in German top court over right to be forgotten

Germany's highest court agreed on Monday with lower courts and rejected the two plaintiffs' appeals over privacy concerns. In the first case, a former managing director of a charity had demanded Google remove links to certain news articles that appeared in searches of his name. The articles from 2011 reported that the charity was in financial trouble and that the manager had called in sick. He later argued in court that information on his personal health issues should not be divulged to the public years later.

The court ruled that whether links to critical articles have to be removed from the search list always depends on a comprehensive consideration of fundamental rights in the individual case.

Read more: Germany's top court upholds murderer's right to be forgotten

A second case was referred to the European Court of Justice. It concerned two leaders of a financial services company that sought to have links to negative reports about their investment model removed. The couple had argued that the US-based websites, which came up in the searches for their names, were full of fake news and sought to market other financial services providers.

Hands typing on keyboard (picture-alliance/empics/D. Lipinski)

When entries are removed from Google searches they are not deleted from the internet

'Right to be forgotten'

This is the first ruling by Germany's top court since the EU's general data protection regulation came into effect in 2018. It gives EU citizens extensive rights to demand corporations immediately delete personal data.

Links are only be deleted from searches in Europe but would appear as normal in other regions. Any data "forgotten" by Google, which mostly provides links to material published by others, is only removed from its search results, not from the internet. The cases stem from a 2014 ruling in the European Court of Justice (ECJ), which found that EU citizens had the right to request search engines, such as Alphabet's Google and Microsoft's Bing, remove "inaccurate, inadequate, irrelevant or excessive" search results linked to their name. The case centered on a Spaniard who found that when his name was Googled, it returned links to an advertisement for a property auction related to an unpaid social welfare debt. He argued the debt had long since been settled.

Since then, hundreds of thousands of people in the bloc have lodged so-called "right to be forgotten" requests.

Read more: EU calls for greater regulation of US tech companies

The issue of how search engines must balance privacy rights with the freedom of information has led to several court cases in Germany and at the European level.

Eric Schmidt and David Drummond in Madrid in 2014 (Reuters/Andrea Comas)

In 2014 Google executives Eric Schmidt and David Drummond took part in meetings to debate the balance between privacy and the free flow of information Read more: Top German, EU courts battle over jurisdiction Google started removing content from searches in 2014.An online form is available on Google sites in EU countries gives users the opportunity to submit a request to have information removed. The form asks for identification and which links should be deleted and why. Each request is handled individually by a staff member who has to make a judgment call.The search giant is most likely to agree to delete search links relating solely to someone's health, race, religion or sexual orientation.

About 90 percent of all web searches in Europe are through Google.

Read more: Opinion: Europe must not trust US with data protection

It is a right that many EU citizens have taken advantage of, as is clear from the Google Transparency Report, according to which since 2014 nearly a million people demanded that almost four million links were deleted from search lists. And in around half the cases the search engine giant has complied with the request, whereby in the majority of instances it was links to Facebook that were removed.

Around one in six of the URLs were removed from searches after complaints from Germany.

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Fighting Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple

One case of a successful deletion request was that of a teacher. An article featuring his conviction for a minor offense over a decade earlier no longer appears in the search results linked with his name. Another was that of a rape victim who requested the removal of a link to a newspaper article concerning the case.

It was the opposite outcome, however, for a priest who demanded the removal from Google search outcomes of two news items that included allegations of sexual abuse against him. Google argued that the information was relevant to the public interest in the life of the priest, adding that the church’s own investigation into the allegations had not been completed.

"Forgetting is a feature, not a bug," argues Viktor Mayer-Schönberger in an interview with DW. The Professor of Internet Governance and Regulation at the Oxford Internet Institute is viewed as a pioneer of the "right to be forgotten." In his book "Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age," published back in 2010, Mayer-Schönberger had already begun to point to the dangers that go hand in hand with unlimited data recording and the traceability of data via search engines.Viktor Mayer-Schönberger (picture-alliance/Frank May)
Viktor Mayer-Schönberger

After all, a mere mouse click will today suffice to bring back to contemporary relevance events that in an analog society would have long been forgotten or become untraceable. People change, just as their preferences and opinions change. The Internet, however, documents all and everything as if it were timeless and above all: without any context.

As a result, evermore information is gathered, nothing ever disappears. The world of medicine has a specialist term for the phenomenon: "hyperthymic syndrome." It described people who simply cannot forget, who are permanently bombarded by their memories, who have to return to and re-experience the past without being able to steer their memories. It is a very rare complaint in humans. But thanks to the Internet and search engines, whole societies are beginning to suffer from this disability to distinguish the relevant from the irrelevant. To identify what is unimportant, outdated, obsolete.

Internet expert Mayer-Schönberger clearly welcomes all the attention on the importance of forgetting in the digital age that the case at the Federal Court of Justice has triggered. Still, he is convinced that legal solutions can only be stopgap solutions. He calls instead for a "practice of forgetting," based on technical processes and tools as well as, above all, a digital expiry date.

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