Google told to remove links to businessman's criminal case

Google is fighting court cases and privacy regulators across Europe over how far it should go to delete links.
Google is fighting court cases and privacy regulators across Europe over how far it should go to delete links.PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON (BLOOMBERG) - Google was told by a London judge to remove links to older stories about a businessman's criminal conviction from search results, in a British case that could dramatically expand Europe's "Right to Be Forgotten" law.

Justice Mark Warby said in a ruling on Friday (April 13) that one story in a national British newspaper was "misleading as to the nature and extent of the claimant's criminality." Warby further said all 11 articles related to the man should be delisted by Google.

"The crime and punishment information has become out of date, irrelevant and of no sufficient legitimate interest," Warby said. He rejected the request of a second businessman, who was guilty of a more serious offence, to have links to articles taken down.

The ruling comes against a backdrop of European criticism of American technology companies' ability to protect user privacy.

Facebook Inc. is embroiled in a scandal over revelations that the data of tens of millions of people was improperly shared with a political consulting firm.

Google is fighting court cases and privacy regulators across Europe over how far it should go to delete links. The Alphabet Inc. unit must remove information about a person on request if it's outdated or irrelevant under a 2014 European Union top court ruling.

"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," Mountain View, California-based Google said in a statement.

The court refused to award damages to the businessman, saying Google took reasonable care in the case.

The original EU court ruling on the right to be forgotten failed to outline clear terms for when the search engine should remove information.

The British court ruling may be the first case from a major court that effectively ruled that criminal conduct can be erased from Google.

The two men, who can only be identified as NT1 - who lost - and NT2 - who won - had asked that links to information on their old convictions be taken down from search results.

NT2 was imprisoned for six months in the early part of this century after authorizing an investigations firm to conduct computer hacking and phone tapping to find out who was engaged in hostile activity against his company.

"His past offending is of little if any relevance," Justice Warby wrote. "There is no real need for anybody to be warned about that activity."

In the NT1 case, which dates back to the 1980s, the man loaned money to businesses and individuals with the funds coming from the company at the heart of a false accounting conspiracy, according to the judgment.

The businessman was involved in a multi-million pound fraud. NT1's conduct demonstrates that "he cannot be trusted to provide an accurate account of his business background," the judge wrote.


Under English law designed to rehabilitate offenders, those convictions don't have to be disclosed to potential employers and can effectively be ignored.

The Rehabilitation act "sought to strike a balance on this thorny topic," said Ben Rose, a lawyer at Hickman & Rose in London who wasn't involved in the case.

"That held good until the Internet and Google's powerful search engine rather undid matters. The right to be forgotten litigation requires the courts to once again consider where that balance lies."

The Right to Be Forgotten can be interpreted in various ways by courts throughout Europe.

In a ruling last month, Paris judges said that Google had to reduce the visibility of stories about a former chief financial officer at a French company who was fined 200,000 euros (S$323,970) a year ago for civil insider-trading violations.

The judges said the right to privacy should prevail after laying down a series of benchmarks including impact on work and family life that dictated whether results should be easily available. The ruling pointed out that this father-of-four didn't profit financially from the violations and was at risk of losing his job again unless the articles were brought down in search results with his name.


"Given his family situation, the loss of his job would cause him a very serious prejudice, especially given that it took him nearly two years to find a new job," the judges said. In those circumstances, "the public interest in having information with his name about this case doesn't prevail."

At the heart of the precedent-setting disputes 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. 

A Google search brings up the information "through a few key strokes," undermining the law about such older convictions where a defendant has paid his debt to society, Hugh Tomlinson, a lawyer for one of the businessmen, said at an earlier court hearing. 

"As things disappear into the past and people don't know about them, they become part of a private life," Tomlinson, who once represented Sienna Miller in phone-hacking lawsuits against News Corp., told the court.