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May 13, 2014

Personal Data Is Not Forever, EU Court Says

Alex Woodie

Freedom of information on the Internet is a driving force behind the big data phenomenon, and underscores the ability of organizations to collect and process it. But in a case involving Google, Europe’s top court today says individuals have a right to be “forgotten,” raising questions about some data collection strategies.

In a landmark ruling, the Court of Justice ordered Google to remove links to search results that contain information about individuals that is outdated. The ruling is regarded as the first legal test of the so-called “right to be forgotten,” which holds that outdated information about people should be removed from the Internet after a certain time. The European Parliament has not yet passed such a law, but it is widely expected to be passed by legislators in Europe, where privacy rights issues have a stronger following than in the U.S.

The case involved a Spanish man, Mario Costeja, who was upset that information about a property auction that took place years earlier still came up when he searched his name on Google. The information was published in a local newspaper years earlier, but Google’s bots sucked up the data, effectively making it a permanent part of the Internet. The Spaniard felt that was an unnecessary breach of his personal privacy, and the court agreed.

The court stated: “If, following a search made on the basis of a person’s name, the list of results displays a link to a web page which contains information on the person in question, that data subject may approach the operator directly and, where the operator does not grant his request, bring the matter before the competent authorities in order to obtain, under certain conditions, the removal of that link from the list of results.

The ruling, which only affects the 300 million or so Europeans, is being heralded as a victory for privacy rights advocates. “Today’s court judgment is a clear victory for the protection of personal data of Europeans,” Viviane Reding, the EU’s justice commissioner, wrote on her Facebook page. “Companies can no longer hide behind their servers being based in California or anywhere else.”

The ruling is a major blow to those California companies, like Google and Facebook, that run the servers that effectively catalog all the information that passes over the Internet. A spokesman for Google told the AP that the ruling was “disappointing … for search engines and online publishers in general.” The company will “now need to take time to analyze the implications,” the spokesman, Al Verney, said.

It’s clear that Google will need to put in place privacy protections for Europeans who want information about them removed from Google’s archive. Whether or not those same protectiosn will be extended to Americans and citizens of other countries is one of the unknowns coming out of this story.

There could also be possible implications on the big data collection strategies of corporations and third-party organizations. The Internet is increasingly used as a source of raw data to be mined for a variety of purposes, including customer sentiment analysis. If customers are given veto power over their information being used in this manner, it could have unforeseen impact on data gathering and analytic practices.

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