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Google fight over frontiers of right to be forgotten in UK

Google is set for its first battle in a London court over the so-called “right to be forgotten” in two cases that will test the boundaries between personal privacy and public interest.

Two anonymous people, who describe themselves in court filings as businessmen, want the search engine to take down links to information about their old convictions.

One of the men had been found guilty of conspiracy to account falsely, and the other of conspiracy to intercept communications, Judge Matthew Nicklin said at a pre-trial hearing on Thursday. Those convictions are old and are now covered by an English law – designed to rehabilitate offenders – that says they can effectively be ignored. With a few exceptions, they don’t have to be disclosed to potential employers.

“This is the first time that the English court is going to decide the issue of the right to be forgotten,” Nicklin said.

The search-engine giant has already become embroiled in battles at the European Union’s top court over the right to be forgotten.

The principle – created by the EU’s highest court in a precedent-setting ruling in May 2014 – allows people to ask for links to online information about them to be removed from search engine results if it’s outdated or irrelevant. The ruling is only valid in the 28-nation bloc, but Google has clashed with privacy regulators over attempts to apply it beyond the EU.

“We work hard to comply with the right to be forgotten, but we take great care not to remove search results that are clearly in the public interest and will defend the public’s right to access lawful information,” a Google spokesperson said.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs didn’t immediately comment.

Not celebrities

Nicklin said on Thursday that while the two cases were not related, they raised the same legal issues. He said plaintiffs weren’t celebrities or politicians and have been “rehabilitated” since their convictions.

One of them, identified as NT1, has been threatened in public places by people referring to the content that Google links to, “and seeking to extract money from him in consequence”, his court filings say.

He “has been and continues to be treated as a pariah in his personal, business and social life and has been unable to form any new friendships or personal relationships”, they say.

Adverse attention

NT2’s papers say some financial institutions are unwilling to deal with him “on private or commercial business” after looking him up on Google. The search engine results have attracted “adverse attention” to him and by association to members of his close family.

The case concerns an “area of the law in which two human rights come into conflict”, Nicklin said. “The right to be forgotten is a dimension of the right to privacy and it conflicts with the right of freedom of expression.”

Google has “staked quite a lot of resources” on trying to do a good job of deciding when to approve requests for links to be taken down, said George Brock, a journalism professor at City, University of London and the author of a 2016 book about the right to be forgotten. He said Google had been “opaque” about its approach to making those decisions. If this case shed light on how it reached the decisions, “it would be a real breakthrough,” he said.

The pair’s court papers say that revealing their identity would “defeat the object of the claims.”

Google has publicly raised the alarm about risks to freedom of speech that it says are posed by the right to be forgotten. Two separate European Court of Justice cases about that right “represent a serious assault on the public’s right to access lawful information,” Google’s general counsel, Kent Walker, said in a blog post in November.

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