Key facts of the case:
The anonymous plaintiff legally challenged Google, requesting the deletion of a link to a written transcript of a television documentary report, sent in 2010 by the North German Broadcasting (Norddeutscher Rundfunk), which was listed by the search engine when searching for the name of the plaintiff. Given that the TV documentary was about „the nasty tricks of employers [when firing staff]“, the plaintiff complained that her private reputation was at stake. In April 2016 a regional court decided that Google should delist the contested link. Google appealed against this decision, and the Higher Regional Court Celle decided in December 2016 in favour of Google, declaring the plaintiff’s complaint as being unfounded as a „delisting“ of the link was neither justified by Section 35 (2) of the Federal Data Protection Act (Bundesdatenschutzgesetz) nor by Sections 823 and 1004 of the Civil Code (Bürgerliches Gesetzbuch), arguing that the plaintiff’s privacy was not violated and she had even given her consent to the relevant TV interview whereas a deletion of the link would significantly interfere with the freedom of press and information. The plaintiff then lodged a constitutional complaint with the Federal Constitutional Court against the decision of the Higher Regional Court, claiming that her general right of personality and her right to informational self-determination (Article 2 (1) of the Basic Law in conjunction with Article 1 (1) of the Basic Law) were violated.
Key legal question:
The Federal Constitutional Court decided if the Higher Regional Court had appropriately balanced the plaintiff’s right to privacy on the one hand and Google’s right to conduct business and the freedom of press and information of third parties being affected by a deletion of the contested link on the other hand. A key question decided was if the relevant standard to be applied for review by the Federal Constitutional Court were the fundamental rights of the German Basic Law or of the European Charter of Fundamental Rights.
Outcome of the case:
Given that the legal dispute is governed by legislation that is fully harmonised under EU law (namely the Data Protection Directive 95/46/EC and the General Data Protection Regulation) the Court applied the Charter of Fundamental Rights as the relevant standard of review even though the plaintiff referred to fundamental rights as protected by the Basic Law. It was the first time that the Court reviewed the application of EU law by German authorities in light of the standards of the EU Fundamental Rights Charter. The Court argued that it is irrelevant that the plaintiff referred to the wrong legal norms as she had substantiated the matter. The Court noted that it had so far left the protection of EU fundamental rights to the lower courts cooperating with the CJEU but that in all these cases it was the validity of EU law which was at stake rather than its actual application. The Court argued that it could not withdraw from fundamental rights review in the present case as otherwise no legal remedies would have been available against a possible violation of EU fundamental rights by a German court.
Regarding the actual matter at stake the Court eventually decided that the constitutional complaint was unfounded. The Court held that the Higher Regional Court Celle had correctly balanced the fundamental rights to privacy and data protection of the plaintiff with Google’s right to conduct business and, more importantly, the right to freedom of opinion and information of the public broadcasting and it users. In the view of the Court the documentary reported on professional aspects of the plaintiff’s life which are, thus, of public interest and – nine years after its broadcasting – not yet protected by the right to be forgotten.
(1) Insofar as the fundamental rights of the Basic Law are superseded by the priority of application of Union law, the Federal Constitutional Court shall monitor its application by German authorities by the standard of the Union fundamental rights. The court thereby exercises its responsibility for integration under Article 23 (1) of the Basic Law.
(2) In accordance with the principle of the priority of application of Union law, the application of provisions that are fully harmonised under Union law is as a rule not governed by the fundamental rights of the Basic Law, but solely by the fundamental rights of the Union. The priority of application is subject, inter alia, to the provision that the protection of the respective fundamental right by the fundamental rights of the Union that are applied instead is sufficiently effective.
(3) To the extent that the Federal Constitutional Court applies the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union as a standard of review, it exercises its review in close cooperation with the European Court of Justice. In accordance with Article 267 (3) TFEU, it submits the matter to the Court of Justice.
(4) Like the fundamental rights of the Basic Law, the fundamental rights of the Charter guarantee protection not only in state-citizen relationships but also in private law disputes. On the basis of the relevant substantive law, the fundamental rights of the parties involved must therefore be balanced. In this respect, the Federal Constitutional Court – as with the fundamental rights of the Basic Law – does not examine the specialised law, but only whether the specialised courts have taken sufficient account of the fundamental rights of the Charter and have found a reasonable balance.
(5) Insofar as those affected claim that a search engine operator should stop providing information about and linking certain contents on the Internet, the the personal rights of those affected (Art. 7 and Art. 8 of the Fundamental Rights Charter) have to balanced with the fundamental rights of the respective content providers and the information interests of the Internet users as framed by the entrepreneurial freedom of the search engine operators (Art. 16 of the Fundamental Rights Charter).
(6) Provided that the prohibition of a search engine listing is issued due to the specific content of the publication and thus deprives the content provider of an important medium for its distribution which would otherwise be available to him, this constitutes a restriction of his freedom of opinion.
(headnotes of the decision)
1. Soweit die Grundrechte des Grundgesetzes durch den Anwendungsvorrang des Unionsrechts verdrängt werden, kontrolliert das Bundesverfassungsgericht dessen Anwendung durch deutsche Stellen am Maßstab der Unionsgrundrechte. Das Gericht nimmt hierdurch seine Integrationsverantwortung nach Art. 23 Abs. 1 GG wahr.
2. Bei der Anwendung unionsrechtlich vollständig vereinheitlichter Regelungen sind nach dem Grundsatz des Anwendungsvorrangs des Unionsrechts in aller Regel nicht die Grundrechte des Grundgesetzes, sondern allein die Unionsgrundrechte maßgeblich. Der Anwendungsvorrang steht unter anderem unter dem Vorbehalt, dass der Schutz des jeweiligen Grundrechts durch die stattdessen zur Anwendung kommenden Grundrechte der Union hinreichend wirksam ist.
3. Soweit das Bundesverfassungsgericht die Charta der Grundrechte der Europäischen Union als Prüfungsmaßstab anlegt, übt es seine Kontrolle in enger Kooperation mit dem Europäischen Gerichtshof aus. Nach Maßgabe des Art. 267 Abs. 3 AEUV legt es dem Gerichtshof vor.
4. Wie die Grundrechte des Grundgesetzes gewährleisten auch die Grundrechte der Charta nicht nur Schutz im Staat-Bürger-Verhältnis, sondern auch in privatrechtlichen Streitigkeiten. Auf der Basis des maßgeblichen Fachrechts sind daher die Grundrechte der Beteiligten miteinander in Ausgleich zu bringen. Insoweit prüft das Bundesverfassungsgericht – wie bei den Grundrechten des Grundgesetzes – nicht das Fachrecht, sondern allein, ob die Fachgerichte den Grundrechten der Charta hinreichend Rechnung getragen und einen vertretbaren Ausgleich gefunden haben.
5. Soweit Betroffene von einem Suchmaschinenbetreiber verlangen, den Nachweis und die Verlinkung bestimmter Inhalte im Netz zu unterlassen, sind in die danach gebotene Abwägung neben den Persönlichkeitsrechten der Betroffenen (Art. 7 und Art. 8 GRCh) im Rahmen der unternehmerischen Freiheit der Suchmaschinenbetreiber (Art. 16 GRCh) die Grundrechte der jeweiligen Inhalteanbieter sowie die Informationsinteressen der Internetnutzer einzustellen.
6. Soweit das Verbot eines Suchnachweises in Ansehung des konkreten Inhalts der Veröffentlichung ergeht und dem Inhalteanbieter damit ein wichtiges Medium zu dessen Verbreitung entzieht, das ihm anderweitig zur Verfügung stünde, liegt hierin eine Einschränkung seiner Meinungsfreiheit.
(Leitsätze zum Beschluss)