Privacy Rights – EU vs. US perspectives on

Google Ruling: Freedom of Speech vs. the Right to Be Forgotten

Source: WSJ Tech
Author: Lisa Fleisher

Privacy Rights – EU vs. US perspectives on

Image courtesy of [smarnad] / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

An EU court ruling on Tuesday saying that Google must scrub search results because of personal-privacy concerns might perplex Americans, and yet seem perfectly logical to Europeans.

In the U.S., schoolchildren are taught that free speech is an inalienable right under the First Amendment of the Constitution. In the EU, where the law is rooted in notions of protecting dignity, privacy and protection of personal data are fundamental rights. A so-called right to be forgotten, based in French law and enshrined in EU privacy rules that date back almost two decades, sets up the expectation that individuals’ reputations not be tarred by misdeeds in the past.

“The dignitary traditions in Europe are so strong that when people feel that their honor or dignity has been affronted, there’s a presumption of some kind of legal relief,” said Jeffrey Rosen, a legal scholar at George Washington University and president of the National Constitution Center. “But before today’s decision, the right of dignity—or the right to be forgotten—had never been recognized so sweepingly in the Internet age.”

An EU court ruled Tuesday that individuals can request Google remove old or outdated search results for someone’s name. The case stems from a request from a Spanish citizen to remove information about debts that were more than a decade old and had been repaid.

The European concept of privacy “is something that many U.S. citizens and also U.S. companies have difficulties to understand,” said Patrick van Eecke, a partner at DLA Piper.

American privacy and civil-liberties advocates divided on the ruling, reflecting tensions between the U.S.’s  commitment to free speech compared with a less-well-defined right to privacy.

“From a free expression perspective, we’re very concerned,” said Justin Brookman, Director of the Center for Democracy and Technology’s Project on Consumer Privacy. “I am worried about the ability of people to eliminate truthful facts about them from the Internet.  Will newspapers have an obligation to redact old press stories if the personal facts become less relevant to the general public over time?”

His concerns are echoed by Danny O’Brian, International Director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The ruling is “very disappointing” and “very vague” he said. “The European Court of Justice has left individual countries and companies like Google with no real guidance on what content should be removed under this law.”

On the flip side, the executive director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Marc Rotenberg, hailed the EU ruling. “This is a huge decision for privacy,” he said.

Europe has blanket rules that outline how people’s personal information can be used and stored. Each member country has an official specifically charged with protecting data and privacy. The strength of countries’ rules varies, as does enforcement by their data protection commissioners.

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