Japan's Supreme Court Sides With Google in Right to Be Forgotten Case

In a case involving an individual's demand that Google remove information about him from search results, Japan's Supreme Court ruled that the public’s right to know trumps concerns over reputational damage in some cases.

Right to Be Forgotten Case 2

In a legal victory for Google in a "right to be forgotten case," Japan’s Supreme Court this week decided against an individual in the country who wanted specific search results about him removed from Google search.

The ruling is important for Google, which is embroiled in similar right to be forgotten disputes in the European Union and elsewhere around the world.

The case in Japan involves a man who was arrested in 2011 on charges related to child prostitution and fined 500,000 yen for the offense.

According to a description of the dispute on Japan’s Asahi Shimbun’s website, in 2015, the individual asked the District Court in Japan’s Saitama District to get Google to remove details of his arrest record from its search results because it was hindering his attempts to rehabilitate himself.

After hearing the case, the court ordered Google to delete a total of 49 search results pointing to the arrest records citing the individual’s right to be forgotten after a certain period of time had elapsed, Asahi Shimbun said.

Google refused to comply and instead appealed the ruling to the Tokyo High Court, which overthrew the district court’s decision on the grounds that it was not in the public interest to expunge the man’s criminal record.

This week’s Supreme Court ruling stems from the appeal of the Tokyo High Court decision. It basically held that Google search results are a form of speech and that removing the results could be interpreted as a restriction on that speech, the Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday from Tokyo.

In its ruling, the court held that requests for removing information from search engine results need to be considered on a case-to-case basis, keeping in mind the tradeoff between reputational damage to an individual and public interests, the Journal said.

Google did not respond immediately to a request for comment, but the Journal quoted a spokeswoman for the company as saying the ruling vindicated Google’s position on the matter.

For Google, the Supreme Court ruling in Japan is an important one. The company is fighting similar right-to-be-forgotten disputes in other parts of the world, most notably in the EU.

EU law currently allows individuals to ask search engine companies like Google to remove links to results that contain inaccurate, incomplete or defamatory information about them. The law is designed to protect individuals from being harmed by incorrect information about them on the Web.

Google’s initial response to the so-called right-to-be-forgotten mandate was to only delete links in search results appearing on Google search domains with the EU. The company refused to remove links to the results from Google.com arguing that the European mandate applied only to its domains within the EU. So, while a deleted link would not appear in searches conduced via google.fr for instance, it would appear in searches on google.com conducted within France.

Critics assailed the company’s position and described it as going against the spirit of the mandate. Under mounting pressure from EU regulators, the company finally relented and changed its position last March.

Google currently uses IP address information and geo-location data to ensure that searches for delisted results in Europe cannot be accessed by anyone searching for them within Google’s EU country domains or via google.com.

Since the right to be forgotten mandate went into effect in 2014, Google has received over 682,000 individual requests to delete data, the company’s Transparency Report shows. The requests have resulted in Google having to evaluate some 1.9 million URLs for removal. In response to the requests, Google has deleted over 690,000 URLs or some 43.2 percent of all the URLs it has evaluated.

Jaikumar Vijayan

Jaikumar Vijayan

Vijayan is an award-winning independent journalist and tech content creation specialist covering data security and privacy, business intelligence, big data and data analytics.