Tuesday, May 13, 2014
The Luxembourg-based European Court of Justice today ruled that Internet companies can be made to remove irrelevant or excessive personal information from search engine results. In a case pitting privacy campaigners against Google, the European Union's highest court upheld the complaint of a Spanish man who objected to the fact that Google searches on his name threw up links to a 1998 newspaper article about the repossession of his home.
The case highlighted the struggle in cyberspace between free speech advocates and supporters of privacy rights who say people should have the "right to be forgotten" - meaning that they should be able to remove their digital traces from the Internet.
Here in the United States, today's NonProfit Times is pondering the ruling's impact on international nonprofits.
In its ruling, the court reasoned that "An [I]nternet search engine operator is responsible for the processing that it carries out of personal data which appear on web pages published by third parties. Thus," the court continued,
if, following a search made on the basis of a person's name, the list of results displays a link to a web page which contains information on the person in question, that data subject may approach the operator directly and, where the operator does not grant his request, bring the matter before the competent authorities in order to obtain, under certain conditions, the removal of that link from the list of results.
Moreover, the court ruled, the search engine operator is, "in certain circumstances, obliged to remove links to web pages that are published by third parties and contain information relating to a person from the list of results displayed following a search made on the basis of that person's name," even if "the publication in itself on those pages is lawful."
The Times notes that the impact of the decision on nonprofits is unclear. For example, it is unclaer whether the decision, which is based on a 1995 data protection directive, will affect requests for deletion of donor histories in nonprofits' databases. Fielding Yost, president and founder of database software producer Saturn Corporation in Cheverly, Maryland, stated: "Right now we don't know precisely what the law says. we just know that Google lost. We've never been faced [with a situation] where someone would say remove my donation history, unless they sent in a delete [request] from the charity. I don't think we're in the same application that Google is. Maybe it'll broaden and extend [to] that."
In the final analysis, Yost does not believe the law requires charities to scrub their donation history as Google must scrub links.
But Steven Shattuck, vice president for marketing at Bloomerang in Indianapolis, Indiana, believes the law will require nonprofits to scrub donor records. Said Shattuck: "Probably in Eurpoe, folks would have the right to be scrubbed. It is the electronic idenitification of a person's personal records. I think it sets a precedent, for sure."
The ruling's impact on international nonprofits will unfold as the days, weeks, and months go by.