The European Union Court of Justice ruled Google must amend some search results at the request of people in a test of the so-called “right to be forgotten”, saying links to “irrelevant” and outdated data should be erased on request.
Campaigners say the ruling from Europe’s highest court effectively backs individual privacy rights over the freedom of information.
In an advisory judgment stemming from a lawsuit against Google that will impact on all search engines, including Yahoo and Bing, the Court of Justice said a search on a person’s name yielded a results page that amounted to an individual profile – one that a person had some right to control under European privacy laws.
The court said people should be able to ask to have links to private information removed, even when a non-Google website was still hosting the information. It added that people “may address such a request directly to the operator of the search engine which must then duly examine its merits”. The court said search engines must weigh “the legitimate interest of internet users potentially interested in having access to that information” against the right to privacy and protection of personal data.
When an agreement cannot be reached the matter could be referred to a local judge or regulator, the Luxembourg-based court said.
The decision came as a surprise since it went against advice the court received from its own leading lawyer last year.
The European court became involved after a Spanish appeals court asked for its opinion in 200 pending cases. Initially billed as a test of the right to be forgotten, the impact of the ruling could be far and wide.
Alejandro Tourino, a Spanish lawyer who specialises in mass media issues, said the ruling was the first of its kind and “quite a blow for Google”.
“This serves as a basis for all members of the European Union. It is a most important ruling and the first time European authorities have ruled on the right to be forgotten,” said Mr Tourino.
That right is based on the premise that outdated information about people should be removed from the internet after a certain time.
A law that would establish that right is still under debate in European Parliament.
Google spokesman Al Verney said the ruling was “disappointing for search engines and online publishers in general”.
The company, he said, would need to take time to “analyse the implications”.
The referral to the European court came after Spaniard Mario Costeja searched his name on Google and found links to a notice that his property was due to be auctioned because of an unpaid welfare debt. The notice had been published in a Spanish newspaper years previously, and was tracked by Google when the paper digitalised its archive.
Mr Costeja argued the debt had long since been settled and he sued to have the reference removed. Though his case will be sent back to Spanish courts for further review, the European decision strongly implies such requests should be granted.
However, it is not clear how it will impact on other cases also in the Spanish courts, or in other countries.