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Finnish court issues precedent "right to be forgotten" decision for Google to remove data

The Supreme Administrative Court ruled that Google must remove a convicted man's information from its search engine data, as requested, in respect of his privacy.

Googlen konttori Pekingissä.
Google's office in Beijing. Image: Roman Plipey / EPA
Pamela Kaskinen

The highest courts in Finland have issued a decision in a case that stands to create an important precedent. A man who had been convicted of murder has a right to privacy, and removing his information from the search engine's data is not seen to infringe on the public's right to information on important persons.

This decision to have URL links containing personal information removed from the internet is the first of its kind in Finland.

It also represents the first time that Finland has adapted the EU's "right to be forgotten" laws, introduced in May 2014. These laws make it possible to ask for personal data that is false, unnecessary, missing information or old to be deleted.

Finland's Data Protection Ombudsman put forward the data removal request because Google refused to remove the man's information at the first request.

The man in question was sentenced to ten years and six months in prison for a "diminished responsibility murder" whereby defendants are not held to be fully criminally liable for their crime because their mental functions are diminished or impaired. The murder took place in 2012, and the man's imprisonment ended in July 2017.

The Supreme Administrative Court in Finland found that personal data about the man, who was found to have diminished responsibility in the murder case due to a health condition, was sensitive information that can be considered private. Data on the man was also accessible via Google searches of the internet that didn't contain the man's name.

The court ruled that even though the crime in question was extremely serious, the public's right to information on the case did not outweigh the man's right to privacy and personal data protection.

Google defended itself on freedom of speech grounds

Finland's Data Protection Ombudsman first submitted the data removal request to Google over two and a half years ago.

The Ombudsman maintained that the prison sentence constituted inhuman suffering for the mentally-impaired man, and that the information on his health that was available via Google searches did irreparable damage to the man's life.

Google appealed the case to Finland's Administrative Court, which did not overturn the Ombudsman's decision, and so it continued its appeal at the Supreme Administrative Court level.

Google made the case that the data removal violated freedom of speech. Part of the EU's ruling is that some data may not be automatically deleted if it protects other rights, such as freedom of speech. For example, controversial statements made by people in the public eye, might not be deleted if public interest is best served by keeping them online.

Google argued that the convicted man in question was a public figure, and therefore the Finnish authorities had no business deciding what the public discussion surrounding him was like.

The Finnish court's decision will force Google's hand and make it remove the man's search engine data links. This will only remove the information from Google's search engine results, however, and not the internet in general.

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