Right to be forgotten case hits European Union high court; U.S. media weighs-in

A controversial case was sent to the highest court in the European Union this week in which the court will determine the breadth and scope of the “right to be forgotten” — the right of individuals to ask that personal information be deleted because it’s outdated, irrelevant, incomplete or no longer necessary to achieve its original purpose.

From the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press:

On Wednesday, a court in France referred a case over the “right to be forgotten” to the top court in the European Union. The case is centered on a question of whether citizens of one country, in this case France, can demand that search engine results be removed from the internet globally, effectively limiting what people around the world can read and access online.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and a coalition of media organizations oppose the ‘right to be forgotten’ policy, and submitted a brief in the French court in November 2016.

Key excerpts from the brief:

Internet search engines are one of the primary means through which the public seeks out and learns about the news. Limiting the content of information made available through Internet search engines has the effect of limiting the ability of news organizations to impart information while at the same time denying the general public the right to receive it. …

It is especially problematic for a single nation to restrict expression and access to information abroad, because different countries strike very different balances between the rights of access to information and the freedom of expression and opinion, on the one hand, and the right to privacy on the other. The U.S., for example, does not recognize a “right to be forgotten,” in part because the nation’s history of protecting free expression does not allow the government to routinely order the suppression of information on public view.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press Executive Director Bruce Brown made the following statement:

“Demands to delist search results globally, including links to news articles, pose a significant threat to media organizations and freedom of the press around the world. They also raise concern over the idea that the laws of any one country could supersede another’s on the Internet in a way that limits access to information.

“This is especially concerning as we think about the news and sharing information globally. In its most basic terms, if a person simply doesn’t like a news story that appears in search results, he or she could petition for its removal from all search engines, rendering it nearly impossible to discover and depriving others of the information, no matter the global importance.

“The news media rely on the Internet, not only to reach an international audience, but also to communicate with sources, investigate leads, and provide coverage and context for stories which attract global attention. Worldwide application of the right to be forgotten could limit this very access to information important to readers everywhere. We worry deeply about the loss to public debate.

“We hope the Court of Justice of the European Union recognizes the potential harm of this policy and resolves this matter in a way that is consistent with the principles of sovereignty and protects the rights of citizens around the world.”


Editor’s note:

Although publishers nationwide receive an increasing number of requests to remove content from their websites (that don’t involve assertions of copyright infringement), no publisher has yet been found liable for failing to accede to such a request.

Privacy advocates in the U.S., however, have recently focused their attention on whether a right-to-be-forgotten law aimed at Internet search engines can coexist with the constitutional protections of freedom of speech and the press- a notion that seems highly unlikely under existing First Amendment jurisprudence.