Google Fights Businessman's Attempt to Erase Conviction Links

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A Google sign on a toy ferris wheel in the lobby of the Google campus in Boulder, Colorado.
A Google sign on a toy ferris wheel in the lobby of the Google campus in Boulder, Colorado. Credit: Daniel Brenner/Bloomberg

Google is fighting a businessman in a London court over whether people have the right to purge old convictions from online search results in the U.K.'s first so-called "right to be forgotten'' trial.

The man, who can't be identified by name because of a court order, wants Google to remove links about being found guilty in a false accountancy conspiracy in the late 1990s. Under English law designed to rehabilitate offenders, that conviction doesn't have to be disclosed to potential employers and can effectively be ignored.

A Google search brings up the information "through a few key strokes," undermining the law about such spent convictions, Hugh Tomlinson, a lawyer for the complainant, told a court hearing on Tuesday. "Google facilitates information that would otherwise be hard to find."

Google must remove information about a person on request if it's outdated or irrelevant, under a European Union's top court ruling that set out a right to be forgotten without outlining clear terms for when the search engine should remove information. Google is fighting court cases and privacy regulators across Europe over how far it should go to delete links.

Public interest

The Alphabet Inc. unit backed its refusal to take down the links in 2014, saying "the information in question is materially accurate and there are strong public interest reasons for maintaining access to the publications," according to its court filings.

Google's lawyer Antony White told the court the right to be forgotten is "not a right to rewrite history or a right to tailor your past, but this is what the claimant would like to use it for."

Allowing a spent conviction to recede into the past is "a sensible approach," Tomlinson said, arguing that there was no public interest in the case beyond his profile as a businessman.

Court documents show the man isn't a celebrity and holds no public office. Google alleges that because the claimant is still operating as a businessman and dealing with clients, then those clients have a right to access information about his old business practices.

Balancing act

At the heart of the dispute is a balancing act between the right to a private life and the right to freedom of expression, both of which were established in the European Convention on Human Rights. The judge will have to weigh up which has a higher merit in this case.

"As things disappear into the past and people don't know about them, they become part of a private life," Tomlinson told the court.

Google said in a February 26 blog post that it is publishing more detail about how the right to be forgotten rules are used. The company said it's adding new data about the types of requests for delisting web links it's received since January 2016. Google will consider if information is "inaccurate, inadequate, irrelevant or excessive" and whether there is a public interest in the information remaining available in search results," it said in the post.

The search engine works hard to comply with the rule but takes care not to remove search interests "that are clearly in the public interest and will defend the public's right to access lawful information," it said in an email.

Lawyers for the claimant did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

-- Bloomberg News

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