One of Finland’s highest courts recently ruled that the EU’s “right to be forgotten” gives a convicted murderer the right to have publicly-available information about his crime removed from Google search listings. The absurdity of this ruling is just one more example of how European policymakers have allowed privacy demands to trump all other individual rights, including freedom of speech and the public’s right to information. The right to be forgotten is a fundamentally flawed policy, and the EU should abolish it before it goes further awry.
The man in question committed the murder in 2012. He was sentenced to 10.5 years in prison, but he was released early in July 2017. He received a relatively light sentence because he has autism, which the courts found gives him “diminished responsibility” for the murder. Finnish media reported all these details at the time.
But the case does not end there.
Before he was even released, the convicted murderer sought to have details of his case erased from the public memory. In 2016, Finland’s privacy ombudsman submitted a “right to be forgotten” request to Google, arguing that details about the convicted murderer are private because of his health condition, and should therefore be removed. In August, the Supreme Administrative Court, which is Finland’s highest court dealing with decisions made by public officials—in this case the ombudsman—upheld those arguments. Google has now been forced to remove links to websites containing this information, such as news outlets.
Proponents of the right to be forgotten argue that it is necessary to protect privacy. However, the law does not protect private information, it makes public information harder to find. Details of that murder will, in principle, remain available from various sources, including news outlets, but search engines like Google are obliged to hide these links from users. Moreover, some news sites may simply decide to eliminate information about the killer from previously published articles on the crime so as to avoid having search engines remove their web pages from search results.
The right to be forgotten could even threaten free speech beyond the EU’s external borders. French regulators are demanding that the right apply globally, citing the GDPR’s claim to cover all data in the world that pertains to people in Europe. The French demand disregards other nations’ sovereignty by ignoring whatever legal safeguards they may have in place to protect their own citizens’ right to free speech. (The European Commission opposes the French position, and the European Court of Justice is currently considering the matter.)
This is not the first example of convicted criminals using the right to be forgotten to hide their misdeeds. Earlier this year, the England’s High Court ruled that a businessman had the right to have Google remove information about his prior conviction and prison time, meaning potential clients and business partners would not be able to find out about his criminal past. And last year, the Belgian Data Protection Authority ordered Google to remove links to web pages that identified an individual convicted of a violent assault.
The volume of these requests is substantial. Since the Court of Justice of the European Union first ordered search engines to begin deleting links in May 2014, Google has received approximately 725,000 requests to delete almost three million links. In Finland alone, Google has processed approximately 10,000 requests to delete around 36,000 URLs. According to the company, almost one-fifth of the news articles it received requests to remove related to crime, and it removes roughly one-third of the right to be forgotten requests that it receives relating to news articles.
The right to be forgotten has compelled search engines to serve as the de facto memory police for European governments, undercutting free speech and public access to information. At a time when most governments are trying to find ways to fight fake news and disinformation, it is unfortunate that the EU is instead promoting a policy intended to deceive and hide information from the public. The EU should abandon this policy that does nothing more than establish an individual’s right to lie by omission, and if it refuses to go that far, it should at a minimum ensure that the European Court of Justice does not apply these policies outside the EU.
Image credit: Markus Tourunen