A German man who murdered two people 20 years ago has won the right to have details of his crime removed from the internet.
The German Federal Constitutional Court last week ruled in favour of the man's 'the right to be forgotten', after he claimed that news articles reporting his murder “impair the free development of his personality”.
In 1982, the man was convicted of murder for shooting and killing two people onboard a yacht.
German magazine Der Spiegel then printed three stories about the case – identifying him by name – which were archived online in 1999.
The man served his life sentence of 20 years and was released from prison in 2002.
After learning about the articles in 2009, he sent unsuccessful cease-and-desist letters to Der Spiegel and then filed an action in the Federal Court of Justice to force the newspaper to remove articles about the murder case containing his surname.
That court action was also unsuccessful, so he took his case to the Constitutional Court.
“The complainant submits that he himself did nothing to reignite public attention regarding his case and that he wishes, in his present life situation, to cultivate social relationships without the burden of being associated with the crime,” a Constitutional Court statement said.
“Yet the current reality is that whenever people enter his name into an online search engine, as is commonplace today, they find the archived articles at the top of the search results.
“The complainant claims that this severely impairs the free development of his personality.”
When striking the balance between freedom of information and the right of personality, time was an important factor for the court.
“In the past, information disseminated in print media and broadcasting was accessible to the public only for a limited period of time beyond which it was largely forgotten,” the Constitutional Court statement said.
“Today, however, information – once it is digitalised and published online – remains available in the long term.
“The lingering effects of information through time are no longer limited to fleeting recollection in public discourse; rather, the information can be directly and permanently retrieved by everyone.”
While the Constitutional Court found in favour of the man, it noted that the EU 'right to be forgotten' does not give individuals total freedom to determine exactly what information about them is removed and presented.
The man will have to return to the ordinary courts before his online record is expunged, but a new set of constitutional considerations will work in his favour.
Right to be forgotten gets tested
Since 2014, when an EU court ruled that indviduals can request search engines to remove personal information, Google has received nearly 3.5 million requests for URLs to be delisted.
The court’s ruling has been problematic for Google, the most visited site on the web, which holds a lot of power with how information spreads.
To make things more complicated. the European Court of Justice found in September that when delisting URLs, Google only had to make sure the sites weren’t visible to searches made within the EU.
A Google transparency report includes examples of delist request decisions the tech giant has made.
In some instances, URLs about serious crimes are delisted because the criminal sentence has been served, a long time has elapsed, or Google otherwise deems it necessary to do so.
“We received a request from the French Data Protection Agency on behalf of an individual to delist three URLs from Google Search. Content discussed the sentencing of the individual for the murder of a close family member,” one example said.
“We delisted the 3 URLs given that the individual was 18 years of age at the time of the event and his sentence had been served.”
Other cases can remain online due to the requester’s prominent public profile.
“We received a request from a former city council member for the political party Vlaams Blok to delist eight URLs from Google Search,” another example said.
“Content on these pages contained info about the requester’s trial and conviction for one count of murder and two counts of attempted murder.
“We did not delist any of the URLs given the requester’s previous political role and the seriousness of the crimes.”