[On January 31, 2017, the Supreme Court of Japan issued a decision on a case filed by an individual residing in Japan against Google Inc. in the United States, demanding the deletion of links in Google's search results to webpages that refer to the individual's crime committed in 2011. The individual's demand was first examined by the Saitama District Court, which accepted the individual's claim specifically mentioning to the "right to be forgotten," and issued an order for Google Inc. to delete the links. Google Inc. appealed the case to the Tokyo High Court, which reversed the decision and dismissed the individual's claim. The individual then appealed the case to the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court stated in its decision that the search result is not only an automatic and mechanical listing of information that simply intermediates third parties' website information, but also Google's own "expression." This means that the search result may constitute an infringement of another person's right to privacy, and Google Inc. as the party that expressed the information, may be liable for the infringement. The Supreme Court, however, also averred that putting a restriction on search results may harm the search engine service provider's social role as an infrastructure service provider at present. Based on this analysis, the Supreme Court concluded that whether providing links to websites that contain articles regarding someone's private information would constitute an illegal act must be determined considering several factors, including: (i) the nature and content of the information; (ii) the scope and magnitude of the effect when the information is spread; (iii) the individual's social status; (iv) the purpose and value of the article containing the information; (v) the social background at the time the article is publicized and subsequent changes; and (vi) the need to refer to the information in the article. The Supreme Court concluded that a demand for the deletion of a link should be acknowledged only when the legal benefits gained by prohibiting the disclosure of the information obviously exceed the benefits that may be gained by providing the search results.
In this specific case, the Supreme Court dismissed the individual's demand for deletion, noting that the information concerning the individual's crime is still relevant to public concern because it was a child prostitution case that is still socially relevant. Therefore, the legal benefits from not disclosing the information does not obviously exceed the benefits that may be gained from allowing the search engine to accomplish its tasks unhindered. The Supreme Court also noted that the scope of information spread is relatively limited because the search result only appears when a specific combination of words is used as the search term.
Before this Supreme Court decision was issued, some lower courts handled similar cases and some district courts issued orders to delete links to websites that may constitute an infringement of privacy. For example, the Tokyo District Court accepted, in its decision of October 9, 2015, an individual's demand for Google. Inc. to delete links that contain statements suggesting that the individual committed a crime. It was reported that Google actually deleted the links, according to the court order.
This Supreme Court decision is the first Supreme Court decision in Japan that dealt with a demand for the deletion of links to a website, filed against a search engine service provider. Considering the criteria that the Supreme Court established ― the benefit from not disclosing the information "obviously exceeds" the benefit of providing information ― it may become difficult after this Supreme Court decision to demand that search engine service providers delete links to private information.]
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