Last week, the High Court ruled against Google by finding that a criminal could benefit from the right to be forgotten online.

In this case, two businessmen (unrelated) sued Google to remove search engine results containing information about their past crimes. The ‘right to be forgotten’ is a principle established by a 2014 European Court of Justice case where it was decided that “irrelevant” and out-of-date information should be deleted on request by the individual.

The first businessman had been convicted over a decade ago for conspiring to intercept communications. He served a prison sentence of six months. The second man was convicted in the late 1990’s for conspiring to account falsely and had served a prison sentence of four years.

In its judgment, the High Court found in favour of the first businessman but against the second.

Why the distinction?

The court’s logic was that the first businessman showed remorse for his past crimes; the judge felt that the information available via Google about his crimes was “out of date, irrelevant and of no sufficient legitimate interest to users of Google search to justify its continued availability”

The second businessman however, had continued to mislead the public since leaving prison. In those circumstances, the Judge considered that the information available on Google about the second man’s crimes served to minimise the risk that he would continue to mislead the public.

This is a landmark case. Search engines such as Google will face influx of requests from individuals (criminals or otherwise) to have online links about them removed from the ether. It has been reported, for example, that Google has already received over 650,000 requests for links to be removed since this ruling (with half of these requests successful).

While search engines are able to refuse such requests (if doing so would be in the public interest) this case puts Google and the like under pressure to strike the balance between the rights of individuals (e.g. right to privacy) and the public’s interest.

It is, however, important to note that the ‘right to be forgotten’ is not absolute. As this case demonstrates, each situation will turn on its own facts.

For more information, please contact Guto Llewelyn.