In 2010, Mario Costeja González, a Spanish citizen, wanted a specific bit of his personal information removed from the internet. He claimed that entering his name in Google’s search engine returned results dating back to 1998, when his home had been put up for auction to recover his social security debts. Since it was already a case of the past, he believed he deserved the information to be taken down, in order to prevent his reputation from being hurt.

He took his case to the Spanish Data Protection Agency.

Costeja González filed a complaint against La Vanguardia Ediciones, the publisher of the newspaper that originally printed the information about him in 1998, and against Google for indexing that information. While the final decision was in favor of La Vanguardia, Google was required to take the necessary measures to take down Costeja González’s personal information.

“Google believed they had a very strong case – there was no libel and defamation,” George Brock, professor at the department of journalism at City University, said. “They thought they would be defended by the European Court of Justice (EJC),” which the case was later referred to.

Brock, together with Jean-Paul Marthoz, EU correspondent of the Committee to Protect Journalists, held a discussion aimed at answering the question “Should we forget the ‘right to be forgotten?”. Julie Posetti, head of digital editorial capability at Fairfax Media in Australia, moderated.

The right to be forgotten

The right to be forgotten has widely been considered as a right of individuals; a right that allows them “to determine for themselves when, how and to what extent information about them is communicated to others”, according to Article 19. So far, it has been described as a right that applies to individuals’ privacy, although it is also closely tied to the access of information that often happens to be public.

The right to be forgotten came to the fore in 2014, when the case of Costeja González was finally closed, requiring Google to modify a link to his online profile. And the reaction to the decision was immediate.

“Once this judgment became known, all hell broke loose,” Brock said.

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It can’t – and it shouldn’t – be so easy to change or take down information from the internet, Brock reiterated. It creates an imbalance between the right to data protection and privacy, and the right to freedom of expression.

Perhaps even more importantly in the context of the discussion, what does such a ruling by the EJC mean for journalists and their right of access to information?

Finding the balance between two rights – and its implications for journalism

Brock took a firm stance acknowledging the risks and dangers that the right to be forgotten may pose for journalists – and others – in the future. The key seems to be rooted in the Data Protection Directive of 1995, which, in fact, “makes no mention of the internet”, as Brock pointed out. And while data protection reforms were adopted in the Council just a few days ago, according to Marthoz, certain issues seem to have remained unsolved.

“I don’t think the new regulation will do away with the problems that already exist,” Brock said. In particular, he believes that the new document gives more prominence to data protection and privacy as opposed to other rights, such as the right to free access to information.

Marthoz seemed to agree, and steered the conversation towards the repercussions that the right to be forgotten may have for journalists.

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Without a doubt, “journalists should be aware of the risks,” he said, “[yet] it is strange that in the last year I haven’t heard from journalists that they have been influenced by this [right-to-be-forgotten] ruling.”

Brock offered a slightly different take on the matter, saying that at least in the UK, journalists are making a case for the right to be forgotten.

“As far as it does concern journalism, the BBC is maintaining the URLs, which it knows have been taken down, and that information is publicly available,” he said. Apart from that, however, “the process is entirely untransparent, without any form of review of what’s going on.”

Essentially, both panellists agreed that anything that may hamper the free access of information is – and should be – seen as a threat to journalists. And a EU directive that prioritises the individual’s right to privacy over the right to freedom of information may open doors to certain measures against journalism in the future.