EU’s Google ruling the latest step in a move to anonymisation

The European Court of Justice has ruled today (13 May) that Google must comply with requests to remove search results that contain personal data, in a victory for the so-called ‘right to be forgotten’. Its implications could be far-reaching for search engines and any site publishing information about individuals.

Michael Barnett

Imagining an internet where any person has the right to demand that data about them be removed is almost an incredible concept. But if it’s taken to its logical conclusion, that’s the reality that’s been brought about in Europe by the court’s decision.

The right to be forgotten has been fought over long and hard in debates around new data protection legislation, likely to be passed this year. Even if it were to be included, there probably would be a grace period of a year or two to allow businesses to adjust.

The fact that this right has now effectively been recognised by case law instead, with immediate effect, will be especially jarring for web-based companies. It not only threatens to add a huge cost burden in complying with or fighting requests for removal of information, but will lead them inevitably to consider whether some business activities involving the publication of information about other people – even when factual and accurate – are even viable in Europe any more.

At the heart of the decision is the opinion of the court that what a search engine does when indexing a web page counts as both collection and processing of data. In the test case, a Spanish man complained about Google results linking to newspaper reports containing details of the sale of his repossessed house. The newspaper published the information within the law, the court found, but it added that Google should not have carried on processing the data, given that it was old and could have become inadequate or irrelevant.

That issue of the length of time that data remains current could become crucial for any further judgements made by courts, but it is hard to know how they will determine the relevance of data. One thing that’s clear is that as long as Google wants to run a business selling advertising in Europe, it will be subject to the effects of this judgement.

So what now for marketers? On this specific matter, it’s hard to tell, but it should be seen as just another step towards the greater anonymisation of online data, which indicates that brands need to get used to adjusting their targeting models accordingly. For example, Facebook launched its anonymous log-in button two weeks ago, which means people’s names and other personal details won’t be shared with other sites when they use Facebook to sign in to an account.

There’s also the aforementioned new EU data protection legislation, which is likely to change the nature of permission-based marketing significantly. Currently, consumers are often asked to opt out of their data being processed for marketing purposes but it could soon be necessary for marketers to ask them to opt in. Findings from a survey by fast.MAP, published by Marketing Week last week, show that people are less likely to opt in than they are simply not to opt out, meaning a drop in the amount of data consumers willingly give is probable.

Consumers are usually happier staying anonymous and their options for doing so are growing. It makes sense for marketers to hone data-driven techniques that accept this reality so they’re future-proofed against this growing trend.

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