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Top court rejects ‘right to be forgotten’ demand

Kyodo

The nation’s top court has dismissed a man’s demand that internet search results of his arrest in a child prostitution case be removed under the so-called right to be forgotten.

The decision by the Supreme Court was the first to outline the rigorous requirements needed for approval of such a request.

“The deletion (of references to the charge) can be allowed only when the value of privacy protection significantly outweighs that of information disclosure,” said Justice Kiyoko Okabe, of the Supreme Court’s Third Petty Bench.

The five-justice court unanimously dismissed the plaintiff’s demand in the decision issued Tuesday and announced Wednesday.

It said the criteria for deleting certain information from search results could be determined based on factors such as the degree of infringement on privacy, how broadly specific searches can be carried out and the industry in which the plaintiff is employed.

Factors that must also be considered include the purpose and significance of news articles, as well as the necessity of reporting real names, addresses and other accurate information concerning one’s privacy, it said.

While search engine giant Google had argued that it serves merely as a facilitator in transmitting information, the court disputed this, calling its role in society significant.

Based on this criteria, the top court concluded that the information in question could not be deleted because the arrest on child prostitution charges is “subject to society’s strong disapproval and is a matter in the public’s interest.”

The trial focused on excerpts of articles that are displayed as search results and not articles themselves. The same criteria is expected to be applied to Google’s auto-complete function, which automatically displays search predictions when a user types a word into its search field.

Harumichi Yuasa, a professor at the Institute of Information Security, said the decision appeared to strike a balance between protecting privacy and the public’s right to know.

“It was very significant for the court to hold Google accountable for being an expressive entity for providing search results,” Yuasa said, as internet search engine providers are often reluctant to accept responsibility, with many claiming they are merely “platforms.”

“The decision can be said to grant internet search engine providers freedom of expression but also lay a certain level of obligation on them at the same time,” Yuasa said.

The decision came after various lower court rulings.

In 2015, the Saitama District Court ordered Google to remove the search results, acknowledging the right to be forgotten.

Last year, however, the Tokyo High Court rejected the man’s demand, with the judge saying that the right to be forgotten is not a privilege stated in the law and its prerequisites or effects are not determined.