EU Court ‘Right to Be Forgotten’ Ruling Threatens Freedom of Expression

Date: 
Thursday, May 15, 2014 - 11:38

The Global Network Initiative (GNI) is deeply troubled by the risks to freedom of expression and access to information in the ruling by the Court of Justice of the European Union allowing individuals to compel search engines to remove links to unwanted information—even if that information is accurate, lawful, and publicly available elsewhere.

GNI Board Chair Mark Stephens said: “With this ruling, society runs the risk of creating a two-tiered Internet, with searches in Europe returning dramatically different and less complete sets of results than will be available in the rest of the world.”

He added, “The social utility in academics, journalists, historians and average citizens being able to know the unvarnished truth outweighs that of an individual’s right to cover up unwanted facts. Protecting privacy is important, but the solution is not to oblige companies to return bespoke search results that open the door to increased censorship.”

The ruling misguidedly places the burden on companies, not courts, to make the ambiguous distinction between the right to privacy and the right to seek and impart information. And companies that decide the scales tip in favor of free expression may still find themselves facing legal action from data protection offices and subject to court orders to alter or remove access to otherwise publicly accessible information.

Europe’s admirable dedication to privacy and data protection has helped to shape global norms. However, it is equally important not to risk inspiring further efforts around the world to remove public facts from public access. We urge an informed debate on striking the right balance between the equally important goals of protecting freedom of expression and protecting privacy.