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Yesterday the trial of Daniel Hegglin against Google Inc. was set to start in the Royal Courts of Justice. However, during the opening minutes of the trial, the parties announced that they had settled the claim.
Whilst this was a successful result for the parties, the settlement has denied the courts the opportunity to make the first English law judgement relating to data protection and the extent of the responsibilities of search engine providers to individual data subjects under the Data Protection Act 1998.
As such, the settlement has also denied data practitioners and businesses the opportunity to understand more about data protection law in practice.
The case focused around Daniel Hegglin, a Hong Kong based businessman with an extensive business and personal presence in the UK. Mr Hegglin was the subject of an aggressive trolling campaign where a significant number of abusive and defamatory claims were made about him on approximately 4,000 websites.
These defamatory allegations appeared prominently when a Google search of Mr Hegglin’s name was made.
Mr Hegglin applied to the court to take out an injunction under the Data Protection Act 1998 and requested that Google take all ‘reasonable and proportionate technical steps as might be necessary in order to ensure that such material does not appear as snippets in Google search results’. Mr Hegglin also sought damages from Google.
This case followed the earlier Spanish decision in the Costeja Gonzalez case, otherwise known as 'Google Spain', where it was established that Google Inc. is a data controller under the European Directive on Data Protection (95/46/EC) and that the jurisdictional requirements of the Directive are satisfied by Google Inc., owing to its use of subsidiaries across Europe to sell advertising and promote the search engine.
Whilst both Mr Hegglin’s claims and the Google Spain case focused around the requirement under the Directive for personal data held by a data controller to be accurate, it is important to note that the facts are distinguishable; Mr Hegglin was not requesting personal data that was accurate, but no longer relevant, be removed from search results, he was instead requesting that Google remove searches relating to abuse for which there was no evidence.
As such, Mr Hegglin’s claims did not relate to a Right to be Forgotten submission in its purest sense.
No details of the terms of the settlement have been released. However, from the statement released by the parties it is apparent that Google has agreed to make 'significant efforts' to remove the material relating to Mr Hegglin.
Having said that, Google also made clear in its statement to the court that Google is not responsible for 'policing' the internet and will continue to follow its existing procedures to assist with removing content that breaches applicable data protection laws; presumably those policies put in place to deal with any Right to be Forgotten applications.
Google is showing a firm position in relation to the lengths that it is willing to go to control content available through its search engine. This is prudent of Google, given the implications that any responsibility, set out in English law, would place on them in relation to data subjects.
Had this case gone to trial it would have provided a very interesting and helpful precedent on the responsibilities of Google as a data controller under English law. In particular, it would have helped establish the extent of Google, and other web search providers, obligations to individuals to ensure that information shown as part of their search results is accurate and not defamatory.
This article was written by Robert Bond.
For more information contact Robert on +44 (0)20 7427 6660 or firstname.lastname@example.org