Google and other search engine providers can be ordered to delete links to outdated information about a person published on the Internet, the Court of Justice of the European Union ruled Tuesday.
People who want Google or other search engines to forget them by removing search results referring to their names can file a request to do so directly with the operator of the search engine, the court said Tuesday, ruling on Google's appeal against a decision of the Spanish data protection authority.
The search engine operator has to examine such requests thoroughly to determine if the information displayed about the person is still relevant. If it isn't, the links to web pages containing that information must be removed, unless there are particular reasons not to do so, such as when knowing the linked information about a public figure is in the interest of the public, the court said.
The information found in search results potentially concerns a vast number of aspects of a person's private life that could be very hard to find without the use of a search engine, the court noted.
Search engine operators collect that personal data by searching automatically, constantly and systematically for information published on the Internet, the court said. They also process that information when the data is stored on the search engine's servers and disclosed through a list of search results. The fact that search engines carry out the indexing without distinction in respect of personal data does not matter, the court said.
Google said it was "very surprised" by the ruling that goes against the opinion of the EU advocate general who said last year that there was no universal right to be forgotten.
"This is a disappointing ruling for search engines and online publishers in general," a Google spokesman said in an emailed statement, adding that the company needed time to analyze the implications.
Tuesday's decision "violates the fundamental principles of freedom of expression", said Jodie Ginsberg, CEO of Index on Censorship, an organisation that campaigns for freedom of expression throughout the world.
The ruling means that information can be removed from search engine results even if it is true and factual, she said, adding that it opens the door to anyone who wants to whitewash their personal history.
But Hamburg Commissioner for Data Protection Johannes Caspar welcomed the ruling, saying the court strengthened data protection in Europe in an impressive way.
Member of the European Parliament Jan Philipp Albrecht, justice and home affairs spokesperson of the Greens/EFA parliamentary group, also welcomed the verdict, and called for stronger enforcement of such rights across Europe.
The court ruled in a case between Mario Costeja González, a Spanish national, and Google. He lodged a complaint with the Spanish Data Protection Agency (AEPD) in 2010 because he wanted the search engine to remove links to a 1998 newspaper article that contained an announcement for a real-estate auction organized following attachment proceedings for the recovery of social security debts owed by him, according to the court.
Because the issue had since been resolved, Costeja González asked the data protection agency to either order the newspaper to remove or alter the pages or order it to block search engines from indexing the pages. He also requested that Google would be ordered to remove or conceal the indexed link from the search results so it would no longer be displayed when someone searched for him on Google, the court said.
While the AEPD rejected the complaint against the newspaper, it did order Google to delete the data from its index. Google subsequently asked Spain's National High Court to annul the decision and that court referred the case to the Court of Justice.
The court ruled that Google and other search engine operators are in certain cases can be obliged to remove links to third party web pages that contain information relating to a person. Search engines also can be ordered to do so if the when the publication in itself is lawful, the court said.
In the case of Costeja González, the court found that the information displayed by Google about him had become inadequate and irrelevant over time. Therefore, Google was ordered to erase the links.
Loek is Amsterdam Correspondent and covers online privacy, intellectual property, open-source and online payment issues for the IDG News Service. Follow him on Twitter at @loekessers or email tips and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org