Right to be forgotten: the first Italian decision after Google Spain

By its judgment of 3 December 2015 (full text here), the Court of Rome issued the first decision of an Italian court dealing with the so called “right to be forgotten” after the ECJ leading case of 13 May 2014, C- 131/12, Google Spain SL, Google Inc. v Agencia Española de Protección de Datos, Costeja Mario González.

The applicant, a lawyer, sued Google, asking the de-listing of 14 links resulting from a list of results displayed following a search made on the basis of his name, on the assumption of the existence of a right to be forgotten. He argued that the links were referring to a court case dating back to the years 2012/2013 and dealing with an alleged fraud in which he was involved (but never condemned) with some representatives of the clergy and other subjects linked to the criminal organization known as “Banda della Magliana”. As a consequence, the lawyer called for the monetary compensation due to the illegal treatment of its personal data.

The Court of Rome dismissed the plaintiff’s request on the assumption that the disclosed personal data were both recent and of public interest.

The Court based its decision on the principles recently recognized by the Court of Justice in Google Spain (and already accepted by Italian previous case law, cfr. Cass. Civ. Sec. III, 05-04-2012, n. 5525).

In this case the ECJ ruled that the data subject may, in the light of his fundamental rights under Articles 7 and 8 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights (and in application of Article 12(b) and subparagraph (a) of the first paragraph of Article 14 of Directive 95/46/EC), request that the personal data in question no longer be made available to the general public by its inclusion in such a list of results. However, inasmuch as the removal of links from the list of results could, depending on the information at issue, have effects upon the legitimate interest of internet users potentially interested in having access to that information, “a fair balance should be sought in particular between that interest and the data subject’s fundamental rights under Articles 7 and 8 of the Charter” (par. 81).

Whilst “it should be held that those rights override, as a rule, not only the economic interest of the operator of the search engine but also the interest of the general public in finding that information upon a search relating to the data subject’s name”, the Court also recognised the existence of an exception to this general rule when “for particular reasons, such as the role played by the data subject in public life […], the interference with [the] fundamental rights [of the data subject] is justified by the preponderant interest of the general public in having, on account of [the] inclusion [of the information] in the list of results, access to the information in question” (par. 97).

The Article 29 Data Protection Working Party (hereinafter only “WP”) in its Guidelines on the implementation of the ECJ Judgement on Google Spain, adopted on 26 November 2014 for the purpose of establishing a list of common criteria to be used by European data protection authorities to evaluate whether data protection law has been complied with, stated that “no single criterion is, in itself, determinative”.

However among these criteria there are both whether the data are temporally relevant and not  excessive (i.e. closely related to the data’s age) and whether the data subject play a role in public life (s.c. public figures criterion).

With reference to the second criterion, even if it is not possible to establish with certainty the type of role in public life an individual must have to justify public access to information about them via a search result, the WP pointed out that “by way of illustration, politicians, senior public officials, business-people and members of the (regulated) professions can usually be considered to fulfil a role in public life”.

Under this test, the Court of Rome rejected the plaintiff’s request on the assumption that the treated personal data were both recent and of public interest and denied that the data subject had a right that the information relating to him should, at this point in time, no longer be linked to his name.

The decision can be welcomed to the extent it shows the benefits of the process of EU harmonization realized by means of the interpretative ruling of the ECJ and of the WP on the right to prevent indexing of personal data published on third parties’ web pages.

The judgement, in any case, works in the direction to limit the scope of application of the right to consign personal data to oblivion, since it affirms that the “public figure role” can be recognized not only to politicians and public officials but also to the large class of “business-people”, belonging to regulated professional orders.

Jacopo Ciani

Court of Rome, 3 December 2015, No. 23771, Dott.ssa Damiana Colla

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