EU court ruling on Google links could encourage paywalls

Research and data mining also will be made more painful by the ruling, says the CCIA

An EU court ruling Tuesday that Google must delete links to private data could encourage online publishers to put more information behind paywalls, according to a legal expert.

"This will have commercial consequences, by making newspaper and other media archive paywalls more economically attractive," said Simon McGarr, lead solicitor at McGarr Solicitors in Ireland. "If a researcher can't be sure that a Google index will return all the relevant returns on an individual, the value of reliable private archives is bound to increase. It makes economic sense as researchers looking for reliable information are frequently those who are most willing to pay."

The European Court of Justice ruled against the advice of its advocate general, saying that even linking to lawfully available information could breach privacy laws.

Google was ordered to remove links to a Spanish newspaper article about a mortgage foreclosure against Costeja González, because it infringed his right to privacy. The newspaper was not ordered to remove the information, but González successfully argued that the links displayed by Google to the information about him had become inadequate and irrelevant over time.

The Computer & Communications Industry Association also expressed concerns about the potential impact of the ruling for research and data mining.

"If I'm a historian and I want to find information that may at the time have seemed mundane but has now become relevant, that is going to become a very laborious process," said CCIA Vice President James Waterworth. "Whether publishers or information sources keep their information behind paywalls is not strictly relevant, because the whole research process is going to become more painful."

This ruling opens the door to large-scale private censorship in Europe, Waterworth warned, saying "it will likely affect all companies providing links on the Internet."

"Up to now companies left decisions to courts to decide on a case-by-case basis. But this ruling seems to place more responsibility on the private actor with no accompanying process. For the time being, there is a greater risk for them if they don't take links down," he added.

However, McGarr said that discussions and tussles on a case-by-case basis still seem likely to dominate this legislative area for years to come.

"This is just one ruling and I think we will have to wait and look at other rulings jurisdiction by jurisdiction before we can derive a general legal framework on this issue," he said.

A new EU law on data protection could also have a major impact. The proposed Data Protection Regulation includes a "right to be forgotten."

"Today's ruling seems to pre-empt the law-making process," said Waterworth. But it is likely to be several years before the data protection law comes into force.

Follow Jennifer on Twitter at @BrusselsGeek or email tips and comments to jennifer_baker@idg.com.

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