In the first “right to be forgotten” case to reach England’s High Court, two men are fighting to keep their past crimes out of Google’s search results, and the tech giant is fighting back by claiming it’s “journalistic.”
The case, which is actually two nearly identical cases, involves two businessmen who were both convicted of white-collar crimes in the ’90s, and requested that Google delist several URLs referencing their convictions, including news articles. When Google denied their requests, they sued under a 2014 European Union ruling which established the right of individuals to have information delisted from search indexes under certain conditions.
In its defense, Google has argued that it should be protected under an exception for journalism because it provides access to journalistic content. Even as a legal sleight of hand, the argument is quite a departure from Google’s customary efforts to present itself as a disinterested arbiter of information, a position that has become more untenable with time.
Gareth Corfield, a reporter for The Register who covered the cases from the courtroom, said it’s disingenuous of Google to put on the mantle of journalism only when it suits them. “They’ve gone through great lengths to say they don’t make any editorial judgement in processing results,” Corfield said, but “it now wants you to believe it is on a par with journalism.”
As the first case to test the “right to be forgotten” in England’s High Court, its outcome will likely set some ground rules in the roiling debate between personal privacy and freedom of expression on the internet. Google’s sudden identification with journalism may be a legal gambit, but it could have far-reaching effects across the landscape of data protection laws.
In May, the General Data Protection Regulation will go into enforcement in the EU, replacing the 1995 directive on which the right to be forgotten legislation is based. The UK is expected to update its own data protection rules later this year and, like the GDPR, includes language on the right to be forgotten (rechristened the “right to erasure”). After Brexit, there will be further changes to the application of the various legal schemas.
No one knows exactly which way this game can go from now – so much personal data breaches have been going on lately, people are getting tired of media giants abusing power and with good reason. If Google were to benefit from the journalism exemption, it could be seen as a win for public interest purists who would like to see less information delisted, but it would also muddy the waters by giving the already all-powerful Google a tool designed to protect the more vulnerable work of a free press.