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Taiwan and the right to be forgotten

by Chen Hui-ling

A case of first impression involving the right to be forgotten recently came before the Taipei District Court. Despite an inconclusive District Court decision, Taiwan’s history of adopting European data protection standards and shifting public opinion in Taiwan suggest that the right to be forgotten could be created in the future.

Shi v. Google International LLC (Taiwan)

The facts of Shi v. Google International LLC (Taiwan) were similar to Google Spain SL, Google Inc. v Agencia Española de Protección de Datos, Mario Costeja González, the Spanish case decided by the Court of Justice of the European Union in 2014. In Costeja, the Court of Justice held that Google Inc. was a data controller and that a search operator had a duty to remove links that are “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer irrelevant, or excessive in relation to the purposes of the processing at issue carried out by the operator of the search engine, not kept up to date, or that they are kept for longer than is necessary unless they are required to be kept for historical, statistical, or scientific purposes…”

Mr. Shi was an owner of a Taiwanese baseball team that was accused of throwing games a number of years ago. Mr. Shi was indicted on fraud charges but ultimately found not guilty. Nonetheless, information about his alleged involvement in throwing baseball games still appears in Google search results.

In 2014 Mr. Shi brought legal proceedings against Google International LLC, Taiwan Branch (“Google Taiwan“) asking that Google Taiwan be ordered to remove its links leading to information about Mr. Shi’s alleged involvement in the scandal. In January of this year, the Taipei District Court issued a judgment against Mr. Shi. 103 Su Zi No. 2976.

In its opinion, the District Court did not reach the issue of whether a right to be forgotten should be recognized in Taiwan. The District Court was unwilling to infer from the fact that Google’s search engine may be used in Taiwan that its searches and organization of information take place in Taiwan. Nor was it willing to infer that Google Taiwan had control of the Google search engine. It found that Google Search is operated by Google Inc. and that Google Taiwan was a branch of Google International LLC, another entity in the Google group. As a result, Mr. Shi had no standing to bring his claim against Google Taiwan. This ruling contrasts sharply with Costeja where it was held  that Google Inc. was subject to the European data protection law because despite not having a formal legal presence in Spain, its activities there in combination with its Spanish affiliate amounted to an establishment in Spain.

While Mr. Shi is said to be appealing, the case highlights once again the great importance the Taiwanese courts place on the distinctions between different legal entities even in the same group of companies and the reluctance of the lower courts to squarely address new legal theories such as the right to be forgotten.

Taiwan Looks to Europe

The predecessor of Taiwan’s current Personal Information Protection Act (the “PIPA“) was the 1995 Computer Processed Personal Data Protection Act. This statute was based largely on the 1980 OECD Guidelines on the Protection of Privacy and Transborder Flows of Personal Data and the Council of Europe’s 1981 Convention for the Protection of Individuals with Regard to Automatic Processing of Personal Data.

Even before the PIPA took effect in 2012, a delegation from the Ministry of Justice traveled to Europe to study the draft General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). At the time, officials from the Ministry of Justice also stated that the Ministry was following the development of the right to be forgotten in Europe with a view toward including it in the next set of amendments to the Personal Information Protection Act. While these amendments have not yet appeared, the Ministry of Justice has also formally requested the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to monitor the progress of data protection legislation in Europe.

Debate on Internet Regulation in Taiwan

Finally, heightened public concerns over internet abuse and the growing perception in some quarters that Taiwan’s freewheeling internet culture needs to be better regulated have lead to renewed calls for a right to be forgotten in the first half of this year. To be sure, suggestions that greater control be exercised over the kinds of speech and information available on the Internet in Taiwan are vigorously opposed by many influential voices. Still, there is noticeably little opposition to the concept of a right to be forgotten to date.

In sum, Taiwan’s courts have thus far declined to recognize a right to be forgotten by sidestepping the issue. Nonetheless, Taiwan’s tendency to follow European developments in data protection and growing concerns about the social cost of an unregulated internet make it foreseeable a version of the right to be forgotten will be proposed by the academic experts who advise the Ministry of Justice on data protection. It is equally foreseeable that any such proposal will engender a public debate similar to the one in Hong Kong on whether the right to be forgotten is in fact a device to protect the wealthy and powerful from what they deem to be excessive public scrutiny.

 

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