European Court Orders Google to Remove Links That Annoyed a Lawyer

| Tue May 13, 2014 8:37 AM EDT

The European Court of Justice has ruled that Google can be required to delete links to public records even when the records themselves are allowed to remain active:

The case began in 2009 when Mario Costeja, a lawyer, objected that entering his name in Google’s search engine led to legal notices dating back to 1998 in an online version of a Spanish newspaper that detailed his accumulated debts and the forced sale of his property.

Mr. Costeja said that the debt issues had been resolved many years earlier and were no longer relevant. When the newspaper that had published the information, La Vanguardia, refused to remove the notices, and when Google refused to expunge the links, Mr. Costeja complained to the Spanish Data Protection Agency that his rights to the protection of his personal data were being violated.

The Spanish authority ordered Google to remove the links in July 2010, but it did not impose any order on La Vanguardia.

Generally speaking, I'm in favor of greater privacy rights, and I mostly support the EU's more aggressive approach to privacy than what we have in America. But this ruling is troubling. Not because Google has to delete some links—I can imagine circumstances where that might be justified—but because they're being treated differently than the newspaper that published the information in the first place. It's as if the court recognizes that La Vanguardia enjoys freedom of the press, but not Google. I'm not sure how you justify that, aside from a vague notion that La Vanguardia is a "real" press outlet and Google isn't. But whatever notions you have of press freedoms, they shouldn't rely on distinctions between old and new media. If La Vanguardia is allowed to publish it, Google should be allowed to link to it.

We'll see how this plays out. To me, though, it doesn't even seem like a close call. These are legal records; they were published legitimately; they're potentially relevant regardless of whether the debts were cleared up; and they aren't even that old. I certainly understand Costeja's annoyance, but that's not a good reason to abridge press freedoms so broadly.