The plaintiff works for or is involved in various companies offering financial services in a responsible position. The plaintiff was his partner and authorized signatory of one of these companies. On the website of a U.S. company whose goal, according to its own statement, is “to make a lasting contribution to fraud prevention in business and society through active education and transparency,” several articles appeared in 2015 that took a critical look at the investment model of some of these companies. One of these articles was illustrated with photos of the plaintiffs. For its part, the website operator’s business model was reported critically, including the accusation that it tries to blackmail companies by first publishing negative reports and then offering to delete the reports or prevent the negative reporting in exchange for a so-called protection money. The plaintiffs claim to have been extorted as well. They request the defendant as the responsible party for the internet search engine “Google” to refrain from displaying the mentioned articles in the list of results when searching for their names and the names of various companies and from displaying the photos of them as thumbnails. The defendant has stated that it is unable to assess the truth of the claims made in the linked content.
Previous process history:
The landgericht dismissed the action. The plaintiffs’ appeal was unsuccessful. By order of July 27, 2020, the Federal Court of Justice initially stayed the proceedings and referred two questions to the Court of Justice of the European Union on the interpretation of Article 17 para. 1 GDPR for a preliminary ruling.
The Court of Justice of the European Union answered these questions in its judgment of December 8, 2022 (C-460/20, NJW 2023, 747 = AfP 2023, 42). The delisting would not depend on the question of the accuracy of the listed content having been resolved, at least provisionally, in the context of an appeal brought by that person against the content provider. The search engine operator is obliged to grant a delisting request if the person requesting a delisting submits relevant and sufficient evidence to support his request and proves that the information contained in the listed content is obviously incorrect or at least a part of this information that is not insignificant for this entire content is obviously incorrect. With regard to the thumbnails, the informational value of those photographs must be taken into account, regardless of the context of their publication on the website from which they are taken, but taking into account any textual element directly associated with the display of those photographs in the search results and which may provide information about the informational value of those photographs.
Decision of the Federal Court of Justice:
The Federal Court of Justice then continued the oral proceedings. The appeal was partially successful.
With regard to the objectionable references to the articles mentioned, the Federal Court of Justice upheld the decisions of the lower courts dismissing the action. One article already lacked the necessary reference to the person of the plaintiff. With regard to the other two articles, the plaintiffs have failed to provide the defendant with the evidence incumbent upon them that the information contained therein is obviously incorrect.
With regard to the thumbnails, however, the plaintiffs’ appeal was successful and the Federal Court of Justice obliged the defendant to delist the thumbnails in the form objected to. Displaying the plaintiffs’ photos, which are not meaningful in themselves, as thumbnails without any context was not justified.