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“Right to be forgotten” by online search engines can include more than search results

The HFHR took on a case involving a violation of privacy caused by Google search results and the search engine’s autofill feature. After the Foundation’s client full name was entered into the search box, the engine suggested content that referred to intimate information about the client.

John Smith* is a public servant, well-known locally because of his official function. Several years ago, a popular newspaper published an article about a case connected with the man’s professional activity. An Internet user entered a comment to the article, in which they disclosed a fact regarding the intimate life of Mr Smith. The information was completely unrelated to the main article’s content or Mr Smith’s public function. Shortly afterwards, a link to this comment has appeared among the highest search hits displayed after the full name of the HFHR’s client is looked up in Google. Moreover, content referring to the intimate fact disclosed under the article appeared in the search suggestions offered by the search engine’s autofill feature and in results for “similar searches” next to the man’s name.

Thanks to the intervention of a pro bono lawyer retained by the HFHR, the comment was deleted from the newspaper’s website, and the link to the comment’s site ceased to appear in search results. However, despite the removal of information from the source site, whenever John Smith’s full name was typed in the search box, the search engine displayed automatic suggestions with the sensitive data.

The case was successfully resolved at the pre-litigation stage. After Mr Smith’s attorney requested that Google Poland Sp. z o.o., the Polish subsidiary of the US-based Google group, remove the described content generated by the search engine’s algorithm, the company accepted the request and stopped displaying the suggestions.

This is not the first time when violations of privacy in search results raised a controversy. In a much-publicised judgment concerning Google, the European Court of Justice held that the protection of the right to privacy and personal data might, under certain conditions, justify an order to remove references to some websites from search results. The case taken on by the HFHR shows that also another content generated by search engines’ algorithms, including the autofill feature, may lead to a violation of privacy.

Mr Jakub Czarnecki, an attorney from Fiks Korpecki Czarnecki Adwokaci handled the case, acting pro bono as a courtesy to the Helsinki Foundation. The case was conducted as part of the Observatory of the Freedom of Media in Poland.

* – name changed

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