EU court ruling means accurate stories already in public domain could be placed beyond the reach of search engines

Journalists will find it harder to research stories following yesterday’s European Court ruling in Google’s ‘right to be forgotten’ case.

And the court’s decision could mean media websites with search tools being forced to remove copy and photos from their archive.

The ruling allows EU citizens to ask search engines to remove links to sites that contain their historic personal information.

This will include stories and photos in newspaper and magazine archives, even if they are accurate and already in the public domain.

Other online search tools – including those on YouTube and Facebook will be affected. 

So in future, a journalist may find there is far less information available online when they research someone.

There will be a public interest defence, and people in public life will have fewer rights.

But any decision on public interest will have already been taken in appeals process, without input from the media, or possibility of appeal.

To get personal information removed, people will have to establish that the information is:

  • inadequate
  • irrelevant
  • no longer relevant, or
  • excessive when weighed against context of the original publication, and the amount of time since it was published.

The court’s decision was not as surprising as many commentators suggest.

Media archives were mentioned in an EU Working Party report on data protection legislation, published last month.

The report cited a fictitious example of a local celebrity who challenged his local paper over an archived story about a historic drunk and disorderly offence.

The report said: "What is most disturbing for the individual is that by searching his name with common search engines online, the link to this old piece of news is among the first results concerning him."

The report said that if the paper refused to restrict the story, the man could complain under data protection legislation, if he could prove damage and distress.

An Information Commissioner spokesman told me: "People do have a right to object and the newspaper, as data controller, would have to consider it."

The Google ruling may also affect new media guidelines on the Data Protection Act, due to be published by the Information Commission this summer.

The act contains exemption for ‘journalistic purposes’.

But the draft guidelines question whether a story in a media archive is a ‘journalistic resource’ or a ‘historical record’.

Put this with the Google decision, and you don't need to be an expert to see legislation affecting media archives is heading.

Cleland Thom is the author of the new eBook, Internet law for journalists.

 

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