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Jury Out On Nonprofit Impact From Google Data Scrubbing

By Patrick Sullivan - May 13, 2014

A European Union court has ruled that individuals have the right to have links about them forgotten, or “scrubbed.” The decision, from the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg, comes against search engine Google. The impact on international nonprofit is still up for debate.

“An internet search engine operator is responsible for the processing that it carries out of personal data which appear on web pages published by third parties,” according to a release from the court. “Thus, if, following a search made on the basis of a person’s name, the list of results displays a link to a web page which contains information on the person in question, that data subject may approach the operator directly and, where the operator does not grant his request, bring the matter before the competent authorities in order to obtain, under certain conditions, the removal of that link from the list of results.”

The court ruled that the search engine operator is, “in certain circumstances, obliged to remove links to web pages that are published by third parties and contain information relating to a person from the list of results displayed following a search made on the basis of that person’s name,” even if the “the publication in itself on those pages is lawful.”

It is unclear whether the decision, which is based on a 1995 data protection directive, will affect requests for deletion of donor histories in nonprofits’ databases. “Right now we don’t know precisely what the law says,” said Fielding Yost, president and founder of database software producer Saturn Corporation in Cheverly, Md. “We just know that Google lost. We’ve never been faced where someone would say remove my donation history, unless they sent in a delete from the charity. I don’t think we’re in the same application that Google is. Maybe it’ll broaden and extend that.”

Yost said that at the moment, the law does not appear to require charities to scrub their donation history as Google must scrub links. “I think the charity’s going to have the issue rather than me,” he said. “I provide a service to charities throughout Europe and the world. It’s not going to affect Saturn, but if the charities have to remove information from their donor databases, then we’ll find a way to comply with that.” Yost added that charities generally do comply with requests to remove a donor from their databases, though they are not required by law to do so.

Steven Shattuck, vice president for marketing at Bloomerang in Indianapolis, believes the law will require nonprofits to scrub donor records. “Probably in Europe, folks would have the right to be scrubbed,” he said. “It is the electronic identification of a person’s personal records. I think it sets a precedent, for sure.”

Shattuck said even if the ruling does apply to donor databases, nonprofits shouldn’t have too much of a problem if they’ve been following best practices. “We always tell folks, always give the option to opt out, always give the option to donate anonymously, always honor any request to delete records,” he said. “The big one for this is, if you’re going to acknowledge someone publically (on a website or a social media post), make sure you have permission to do so. If you do all those things, this shouldn’t be an issue.”

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