The highest court in the European Union, the Luxembourg-based European Court of Justice, ruled today that Google users there can actually demand that the giant search engine remove links as well as other information in search results that potentially threaten their privacy. The court stated: “(People) have a right to be forgotten.”
The specific case concerned a man in Spain who asked Google to delete a reportedly “16-year-old newspaper article” concerning the auctioning off of his home for “failure to pay taxes.” Nevertheless, the ruling on this single case is now binding in all of the 28 countries in the European Union. Furthermore, it can be applied to not just Google but all search engine owners.
European Union Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding said the ruling was “a clear victory for the protection of personal data of Europeans.” Google representatives somewhat expectedly told the press that they found the ruling to be “disappointing.”
Internet privacy rights advocates believe that this ruling could possibly undercut the right to free speech. Emma Carr, acting director of the British group Big Brother Watch, stated: “The principle that you have a right to be forgotten is a laudable one, but it was never intended to be a way for people to rewrite history. Search engines do not host information, and trying to get them to censor legal content from their results is the wrong approach.”
The organization believes that people seeking to remove information from the internet should go to “the source” and not such intermediaries as Google. The London-base Open Rights Group, another data-protection advocacy organization agreed with Carr noting that this ruling “has major implications for all kinds of internet intermediaries” and not just search engines like Google.
Peter Church, an attorney with the Linklaters law firm in London, England feels that compliance with this ruling could be very difficult. He pointed out that Google and other search engine companies could “receive thousands, if not more, requests from individuals asking that their information be removed.” He added that each request would have to be carefully considered since in some cases “there will be a clear public interest in keeping the information” visible on the internet “such as when public officials are involved.”
Church further stated that other non-European Union citizens—including Americans—may very well also be able to use this ruling and demand that their data be removed from any and all European sites. Church elaborated on the potential problems involved: “You might get balkanized search results” and some personal information could be deleted from Google’s Spanish website yet still be visible on the company’s American site.
Google of course has other legal issues as they are fighting regulators in multiple European countries over privacy issues while they attempt to provide additional services in order to compete with Facebook for advertisers and users. Just last month, Google was fined over $1 million dollars by Italy for violations of personal privacy by its popular Street View service that photographed citizens without their consent or knowledge. Spain and France have also fined the search engine giant over similar privacy issues.