What happened to Mr. Mario Costeja Gonzalez could have happened to any of us. The location was Spain. The time – 1998. Mr. Gonzalez lost his home due to outstanding social security debts. A local Spanish newspaper published a listing of properties – including Mr. Gonzalez’s property - that were up for auction. Certainly not newsworthy.
Flash forward to 2009 when Mr. Gonzalez was surprised to find the 1998 auction listing was made available online as part of the newspaper’s web archives. After complaining to the newspaper and later to Google to have the irrelevant data removed, Mr. Gonzalez hit a brick wall. After no action was taken by Google or the newspaper, Mr. Gonzalez lodged a complaint with the Agencia Espanola de Proteccion de Datos (AEPD) – an agency of the Spanish government focused on protecting the personal privacy of Spanish citizens.
The AEPD agreed with Mr. Gonzalez that Google should remove the personal data. Google fought back and with several years of legal wrangling, the case ended up in the European Court of Justice as case C-131/12.
The European Court of Justice ruled in 2014 that citizens do have the right to be forgotten – under certain circumstances. Specifically, the data must be inaccurate, inadequate, irrelevant or excessive. Certainly in Mr. Gonzalez’s case, the data was found to be irrelevant. The court also ruled that the right to be forgotten is “not absolute." It is a tough balancing act protecting the privacy of individuals with the freedom of expression and the need to provide public services.
This would stop abusers of this ruling from wiping out all personal data without reason. For example, should public figures and celebrities be able to scrub their personal data from the world’s search engines just because they want to hide from the limelight?