The internet preserves a lot of data, and these data can have a permanent electronic trace about something you may not want. A top EU court has ruled Google must amend some search results at the request of ordinary people in a test of the so-called "right to be forgotten". People should have some privilege over the results that show when they conduct a search of their own name online.
On Tuesday, May 13th, 2014, the Court of Justice of the European Union gave people the means to erase their reputations online. The Court said that Google must listen and in under certain circumstances, comply when individuals ask the search engine giant to remove links to articles or websites containing their personal information that they don't want.
Campaigners say that the ruling effectively supports individual's privacy rights over the freedom of information.
In an advisory judgment that will impact on search engines, the court said a search on a person's name yields a results page that amounts to an individual profile. Under European privacy law, it said people should be able to ask to have links to private information in that "profile" removed.
For this to happen, search engines would require to edit some searches to make them compliant with the European directive on the protection of personal data.
Google, having won at earlier stages of this legal battle, is both surprised and furious at this outcome. The search giant said that the company is still studying the advisory ruling, and said that the rules are "disappointing."
"We now need to take time to analyze the implications," said Google's spokesperson Al Verney.
In the ruling, the court said people "may address such a request directly to the operator of the search engine … which must then duly examine its merits." The right is not absolute, as 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 between the two parties can't be reached, the Luxembourg-based court said the matter can be referred to a local judge or regulator.
Debates over the "right to be forgotten" have surfaced as tech users struggle to reconcile the forgive-and-forget nature of human relations with the unforgiving permanence of the electronic record.
A Spanish Lawyer Alejandro Touriño who specializes in mass media issues, said the ruling was a first of its kind and is "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 Touriño.
A law that would formally establish a “right to be forgotten” is still under debate in the European Parliament, and Tuesday’s ruling focused on existing privacy laws.
The referral to the European court derives from the case of Mario Costeja, a Spaniard who 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 in 1998, and was tracked by Google's spiders when the newspaper digitized its archive.
Costeja said that the debt had long since been settled, and he asked the Spanish privacy agency to have the reference removed. The agency agreed, but Google refused. The search engine said that it should not be asked to censor material that had been legally published by the newspaper. Though Costeja's case will now be reviewed by the Spanish court, the European decision strongly implies that such requests should be granted.
"It's a great relief to be shown that you were right when you have fought for your ideas. It's a joy," Costeja said. "Ordinary people will know where they have to go" to complain about bad or old information that turns up on a Google search.
Other than Costeja's case, there is also about 200 other cases in the Spanish court system, to support this rule. The rule applies to the entire 28 nations with over 500 million people and all search engines in Europe, including Yahoo! and Microsoft Bing. It has no immediate effect on the way Google and other search engines display their results in the U.S. or other countries outside Europe.
Debates over the "right to be forgotten" have surfaced across the world as tech users struggle to reconcile the forgive-and-forget nature of human relations with the unforgiving permanence of the internet.
The decision was celebrated by some, especially in Europe, as a victory for privacy rights in an age when just about everything on the internet is preserved. Others warned it could interfere with the celebrated free flow of information online and lead to censorship. The idea that has generally been well received in Europe, have been criticized by many in the U.S., saying that it could form a sort of censorship that would allow criminals to delete references to past crimes or politicians to alter their records.
"We need to take into account individuals' right to privacy, but if search engines are forced to remove links to legitimate content that is already in the public domain but not the content itself, it could lead to online censorship," said Javier Ruiz Diaz, policy director at Open Rights Group.
"This case has major implications for all kinds of Internet intermediaries, not just search engines," Diaz added.
The EU Justice Commissioner, Viviane Reding, welcomed the court's decision in a post on Facebook, saying it was a "clear victory for the protection of personal data of Europeans".
Google currently advises users to contact the websites that have published information about them as a first step in having it cleared from the internet. And if the site removes the content, Google will automatically have the material disappear soon from its search results. But persuading websites to remove their posted information can be difficult and time-consuming. The EU ruling would presumably make it easier by putting the burden on search engines.
The Mountain View, California-based company said that "this is a disappointing ruling for search engines and online publishers in general." But to comply with the rule, the company offers a guide to users on how best to approach having personal information removed from the web.