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German double murderer wins 'right to be forgotten' case

The latest in a long line of high-profile cases to result in a win for the complainant

A German man previously convicted in 1982 for two murders has won his 'right to be forgotten' case in Germany's highest court.

Released from jail in 2002, the man became aware of the articles relating to his case posted online by German media outlet Der Spiegel in 2009, according to the BBC

The man said to the court that he wanted his family name taken out of publications and having them online, for all to see, violated his rights and "ability to develop a personality", according to a court statement from Germany's highest court.

The man's original claim in 2012 was quashed by a federal court which said his right to privacy didn't outweigh the public's right to information and the freedom of the press.

The conflict of rights is one that courts wrestle with during every 'right to be forgotten' case. The complainant's right to privacy is weighed up against press freedom, public interest, freedom of expression and other factors that must be considered before erasing a significant moment in history from the archives.

The ruling means the complainant can now approach Google and request links to be removed from searches relating to his case and ask publications, which are allowed to keep archived articles online, to remove them. 

To make such a request, the information must be deemed "irrelevant, outdated or otherwise inappropriate", and a digital copy of the complainant's official identity must be provided. If the information isn't removed sufficiently, fines can be issued.

Critics have complained about the 'right to be forgotten' as it essentially means a private company, Google, which is responsible for roughly 90% of the web's searches, is now responsible for deciding what information is in the public interest.

Why does Google have this power?

The decision to hand this power to Google came as a result of a landmark European Court of Justice ruling which was based on Article 12 of the EU's Data Protection Directive 1995. It stated that people could ask for their data to be deleted once it was no longer necessary.

The ruling has come under the public eye numerous times since then. Perhaps most notably for Google was the 2014 case involving Mario Costeja González and his legal battle to have the repossession of his house removed from online archives. 

Spanish newspaper La Vanguardia published the details of the repossession along with González's name in 1998, which an article which was later archived online. The ECJ eventually ruled in favour of González and that Google had to remove links to the archived article from its search functionality.

A turbulent evolution

Since the right was established, the results of numerous lawsuits have impacted the scope of the 'right to be forgotten'. In September 2019, a European court ruled that the erasure of links for EU citizens doesn't have to be honoured outside of the bloc.

This means an individual in Costa Rica, for example, can search for González's name and be directed to the La Vanguardia archives. This ruling came after a lengthy legal battle between Google US and CNIL, the French data protection watchdog.

Since Google was handed the responsibility of dealing with erasure requests, it said it had complied with 43% of requests - 89% of which come from private citizens and the remaining 11% from organisations and government officials.

Those in favour of the 'right to be forgotten' claim it can help victims of crimes such as revenge porn from being adversely affected by their ordeal. Others claim that the ruling threatens freedom of expression, press freedom and promotes undue censorship.

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