If you screw up in a way that gets any sort of media attention, chances are you won’t like what you see when you run a query for your name on Google. And those unflattering search results could have far-reaching implications for your livelihood. Two businessmen in the UK didn’t like some results that turned up when their names were searched for on Google, so they took the company to the High Court of Justice based on the “right to be forgotten” precedent set by the Court of Justice of the European Union in 2014. One of the men won, while the other lost and was granted an appeal. The ruling sets an important bar for future requests to have search results delisted.
The two businessmen, referred to as “NT1” and “NT2” in the case, were convicted of separate crimes and served jail sentences. NT1 was convicted of conspiring to account falsely in the late 1990s and served four years in jail; NT2 was convicted of conspiring to intercept communications 10 years ago and served six months in jail.
Both men requested that Google remove search results about their pasts: NT1 submitted his request to remove six links on June 28th, 2014, while NT2 submitted his request to remove 11 links on April 14th, 2015. While Google delisted one of NT1’s six requested links, it refused to delist any of the others. So, NT1 and NT2 took the search giant to the UK High Court.
On April 13th, 2018, Justice Mark Warby ruled in favor of NT2, upholding a claim that a national newspaper article had misleading information about the “nature and extent of the claimant’s criminality.” Justice Warby concluded: “The crime and punishment information has become out of date, irrelevant and of no sufficient legitimate interest to users of Google Search to justify its continued availability, so that an appropriate delisting order should be made.” The judge noted that NT2 acknowledged his guilt and showed genuine remorse, and that the claimant is now in a different line of work. NT2 will not receive any compensation and will not be awarded any damages.
In the case of NT1, Justice Warby said the claimant has not accepted his guilt, misled the public, misled the High Court, and “shows no remorse over any of these matters.” The judge added that NT1 remains in business, and information about his past criminal conviction and jail sentence available via Google search results minimizes the risk that he will continue to mislead people.
However, Justice Warby granted an appeal in NT1’s case, adding that “It is quite likely that there will be more claims of this kind, and the fact that NT2 has succeeded is likely to reinforce that.”
In a statement, Google accepted the ruling in NT1 & NT2 v Google LLC (right to be forgotten): “We work hard to comply with the right to be forgotten, but we take great care not to remove search results that are in the public interest and will defend the public’s right to access lawful information. We are pleased that the court recognised our efforts in this area, and we will respect the judgments they have made in this case.”
“The right to be forgotten” is a legal precedent that comes from the Court of Justice of the European Union’s May 2014 ruling in a case brought by Mario Costeja Gonzalez, who requested that information about his financial history be removed from Google’s search results. Since then, Google has received requests to delist at least 2.4 million links from its search results and has removed about 800,000 of those links. Search engine companies can reject such requests if they deem the information in question to be in the public interest.
The ruling in favor of NT2 will surely embolden people who want unpleasant information about them removed from Google’s search results, especially if said information could impact their ability to make a living. Balancing the public interest with personal privacy and reputation is a tricky game, but this ruling will serve as a guideline for future cases — and maybe for Google’s decisions on delisting requests going forward.