The European Court of Justice's demand for internet search engines to respect individuals' "right to be forgotten" is unworkable and unreasonable and should be written out of future EU law, a House of Lords committee has said. In a new report, the Lords Home Affairs, Health and Education EU Sub-Committee said it was "wrong in principle" to give search engines the power to decide what should or should not be deleted and called on the UK Government to fight to ensure that updated EU regulations do not contain a "right to erasure".
The court ruled in May that links to irrelevant and outdated data should be erased on request from searches within the EU, sparking concerns over censorship of material which is accurate and in the public domain. Search giant Google has received more than 70,000 requests to block links in response to the ruling, which was based on Article 12 of the EU's directive on the protection of personal data, which was drawn up three years before the company even existed.
In its report, based on evidence from data protection evidence, the Office of the Information Commissioner, justice minister Simon Hughes and Google itself, the Lords committee said that the court's judgment had resulted in material being blocked on the basis of "vague, ambiguous and unhelpful" criteria which did not reflect the current state of information technology. Peers warned the court against trying to "enforce the impossible".
Committee chairman Baroness Prashar said: "Although this was a short inquiry, it is crystal clear that neither the 1995 Directive, nor the Court of Justice's interpretation of it reflects the incredible advancement in technology that we see today, over 20 years since the directive was drafted. Anyone anywhere in the world now has information at the touch of a button, and that includes detailed personal information about people in all countries of the globe."
Lady Prashar added: "We believe that the judgment of the court is unworkable for two main reasons. Firstly, it does not take into account the effect the ruling will have on smaller search engines which, unlike Google, are unlikely to have the resources to process the thousands of removal requests they are likely to receive. Secondly, we also believe that it is wrong in principle to leave search engines themselves the task of deciding whether to delete information or not, based on vague, ambiguous and unhelpful criteria, and we heard from witnesses how uncomfortable they are with the idea of a commercial company sitting in judgment on issues like that.
"We think there is a very strong argument that, in the new regulation, search engines should not be classed as data controllers, and therefore not liable as 'owners' of the information they are linking to. We also do not believe that individuals should have a right to have links to accurate and lawfully available information about them removed, simply because they do not like what is said.
"Technology advances at ever increasing speeds and it is incredibly difficult for legislation to keep up - never mind 'future proof' - the unforeseen leaps that technology is bound to make. However, what we can do is ensure that the regulations and directives that we do draft are sensible, taking into account the current situation and the likelihood of ever-increasing amounts of available data, and decide not to try and enforce the impossible."
Responding to the peers' report, Mr Hughes said: "The Government wants to protect privacy rights and freedom of speech while taking action to bolster economic growth. Our greatest challenge is getting that balance right, and we welcome the support of the Lords for our position in negotiating new European data protection legislation.
"I agree that it is neither accurate nor helpful to say that the recent judgment of the European Court of Justice has given a right to be forgotten. We need to be clear that the judgment does not give individuals an unfettered right to have their personal data deleted from search engine results."