In what potentially a landmark ruling, a British man has been granted the legal right to have a former criminal charge stripped from search engine Google’s results. The judge in the case wrote “the crime and punishment information has become out of date, irrelevant and of no sufficient legitimate interest to users of Google search to justify its continued availability.”
The ruling comes a few months after another man had a similar claim denied by the same judge.
The man who was granted the “right to be forgotten,” as it’s become known, is identified in court documents only as NT2. He was convicted more than ten years ago of conspiracy to intercept communications. The man who had his request denied, identified as NT1 was convicted of conspiracy to account falsely in the 1990s. NT1 served four years in jail, while NT2 served six months.
In explaining his decisions Mr. Justice Warby said NT2 had expressed regret for his crime while NT1 had not. He also noted that NT2’s crimes did not involve illegal activity against “consumers, customer or investors,” but rather invasion of privacy of third parties.
“There is not [a] plausible suggestion … that there is a risk that this wrongdoing will be repeated by the claimant. The information is of scant if any apparent relevance to any business activities that he seems likely to engage in,” he added.
The reason for keeping NT1’s convictions on Google, Warby said, was the need to inform the public of his crimes to decrease the amount of harm the man could do to others.
“He remains in business, and the information serves the purpose of minimizing the risk that he will continue to mislead, as he has in the past. Delisting would not erase the information from the record altogether, but it would make it much harder to find,” he said.
A definition of “accounting falsely,” from The Theft Act of 1968, lists the offense as “Where a person dishonestly, with a view to gain for himself or another or with intent to cause loss to another… destroys, defaces, conceals or falsifies any account or any record or document made or required for any accounting purpose.”
The search results that NT1 was trying to get de-listed concerned a newspaper article and statements related to his offense, which Warby ruled that the public had the right to know.
The lawyer for NT1, Hugh Tomlinson, argued that the that Google should remove his client’s listings due to the “distress and upset” it was causing his client. Tomlinson further argued that his client was no longer a public figure and earned money by commercial lending and helping fund a real estate developer. He said that gave his client the right to be forgotten.
“Before anyone meets a new person these days they Google them,” Tomlinson said at a court hearing in February. He argued that if those records were constantly brought to the attention of others, the effect of past ill-advised actions would be permanent. NT1’s sentence was served, and the purpose of the criminal justice system was rehabilitation, he argued.
But the “right to be forgotten” ruling was “not a right to rewrite history or…tailor your past if that’s what this claimant would like to use it for,” Anthony White, attorney for Google said. It is believed that this was part of the client’s purpose for having the incident removed from search results, but that can’t be confirmed.
NT2 argued that his sentence was also served and so he had a right to have his records removed. The judge agreed.
A Google spokesperson responded to NT2’s ruling with a statement: “We work hard to comply with the right to be forgotten, but we take great care not to remove search results that are in the public interest and will defend the public’s right to access lawful information.”
“We are pleased that the court recognised [sic] our efforts in this area, and we will respect the judgments they have made in this case,” it added.
The ruling comes four years after the European court of justice ruled that “irreverent” and outdated data should be erased on request. Since that ruling Google has received removal requests for at least 2.4 million links. Search engines can deny requests if they believe there are public interests that outweigh the right to privacy.
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