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The Court of Justice of the European Union’s May 2013 holding in C-131/12 Google Spain that Google search engine was a data “controller” under Spanish law and that individuals had the right to demand erasure of data in certain circumstances (the so-called “right to be forgotten”) sent shockwaves across the internet community.  Many privacy campaigners celebrated.  Outgoing Vice-President of the European Commission Vivienne Reding stated that the judgement was a “clear victory for the protection of personal data of Europeans” demonstrating that “data belongs to the individual, not to the company”, whilst Jan Albrecht, a prominent Green MEP, stated that to “hold search engine operators responsible for compliance with the data protection law is the right decision”.  Yet, even here, there was shades of disquiet with the UK-based Big Brother Watch stating that search engines “do not host information and trying to get them to censor legal content from their results is the wrong approach”.  Free speech campaigners were even more outspoken.  Index on Censorship stated that the decision was “akin to marching into to a library and forcing it to pulp books”, whilst Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales described it as “one of the most wide-sweeping internet censorship rulings I’ve ever seen”.  Seemingly stunned into silence, search engine and other related internet actors themselves were relatively restrained, with Google’s Chief Legal Officer David Drummond simply calling the judgment a “disappointing” decision which “went too far”.

A number of search engines providers have now rolled out their version of the right to request erasure of personal results, whilst Google’s Advisory Council on the Right to be Forgotten has conducted wide-ranging hearings on this topic.  Over the same time period the Working Party of EU Data Protection Authorities have agreed regulatory guidelines which fundamentally challenge Google and others on issues such as the potential global reach of the judgment and the limits on lawful notification of third party publishers about both requests for, and erasure of, material.  Meanwhile, potentially even more fundamental challenges have been raised as a result of private litigation, notably in the Hegglin case against Google, which was ultimately settled out-of-court last November.

Alongside the effects of the judgment on general search engines, it is also clear that the case is a genuine landmark which will significantly influence the regulation of internet actors more widely.  Therefore, the conference will include panel sessions exploring these wider ramifications along the following dimensions:

  • The emergence of data protection as a wide-ranging and fundamental right in Europe and the implications of this for human rights jurisprudence.
  • The implications of the judgment for internet actors beyond search engines including online forums, rating websites, social networking sites and news aggregators.
  • The implications of the judgment as regards jurisdiction and applicable data protection law both within the EU and as regards the EU and the wider world.

This conference at Cambridge, which has received very welcome donations from both Hogan Lovells and Cambridge Big Data, provided a unique opportunity to assess the nature and extent of these important developments.

The Report of Conference Proceedings is now available as a PDF.