Court Sides With Google Over Polarizing Privacy Law Overreach

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A preliminary opinion issued by the European Court of Justice sided with Google on the subject of a polarizing privacy law's scope. A stance elaborated by the court's Advocate General Maciej Szpunar as part of a Thursday publication saw the legal body argue the so-called "right to be forgotten" cannot be enforced globally as it's a concept based on legal definitions and interpretations within the European Union. Google has been fighting the notion that it's required to honor information deletion requests on a worldwide level for many years now. The right itself allows EU nationals to demand certain links generated in response to searches for their names are removed if they're deemed outdated or irrelevant. Opponents of the concept claimed it promotes censorship, hence threatening free speech, and constitutes regulatory overreach. Should Google be forced to comply with link deletion requests globally, such a development would likely facilitate censorship on the part of some of the world's most oppressive regimes such as China, Saudi Arabia, and Russia, privacy advocacy groups previously claimed. While today's opinion is not legally binding, preliminary opinions from Advocates General are traditionally a strong indication of ultimate ECJ rulings as the court rarely disagrees with its top officials.

A legal rollercoaster

The newly published opinion was given as part of a legal clash between Alphabet's subsidiary and the National Commission for Information Technology and Civil Liberties, an independent French regulatory body tackling a broad range of issues, including digital privacy. The ordeal started after the agency issued a €100,000 fine to Google for refusing to comply with a certain data removal request on a global level, arguing the geographical filters used by the company as an alternative to that move are insufficient when it comes to honoring one's right to not be encumbered by outdated and irrelevant information about their person. In response, the Mountain View, California-based digital juggernaut appealed with the ECJ, asking for the fine to be dismissed. The publication of today's opinion signals the case is in its final stages, at least as far as a first-instance verdict is concerned.

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The EU legal system officially describes such information deletion as "de-referencing" and considers it among some of the fundamental digital rights of the political bloc's nationals. The legal concept itself was established in a 2014 verdict in a case that saw a Spanish citizen sue Google for refusing to remove certain Search results links generated in response to a query containing nothing but their name. Since that development, Google received millions of data de-listing requests and continues to be overwhelmed by them to this date, according to recent statements from company officials. Besides outdated and irrelevant content, the right also encompasses results that can be found "excessive" and unbecoming, though the actual interpretation of such subjective criteria was often a point of contention in debates centered on the thereof, even among supporters of the general principle. While today's opinion marks a major legal win for Google, the company took a long while to reach it, having faced many setbacks so far.

Times are changing

Attorney General Szpunar framed his latest communication as solely pertaining to the said case, so coupled with the fact that precedent law is rarely practiced on the Old Continent, any ECJ ruling on the matter is unlikely to completely prevent future disputes associated with the right to be forgotten in other parts of the political bloc, though it should at the very least make them less probable. The veteran attorney also argued the legal concept in question shouldn't be enforced at all costs; instead, relevant information deletion requests should be considered on a case-by-case basis and in the context of how they work with existing rights to privacy, digital data protection, and public interest. A one-size-fits-all approach to enforcement would cripple the EU's ability to protect those other fundamental rights related to digital technologies and the Internet in particular, the opinion reads. Should Google manage to have its fine overturned, it's likely to use that development as additional leverage in any future data de-listing requests on the Old Continent, despite being unable to rely on "real" precedents. At the same time, the company's issues in Europe seem to only be beginning as it's presently fighting two historic antitrust fines from the European Commission pertaining to its alleged abuses of Android and Search's market dominance which in overall make the firm appear to be much less invulnerable than several years back.

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