In a landmark case for the future of digital privacy, an EU court has ruled that Google must remove some links from its search results, if asked, in order to protect users' "right to be forgotten."
According to the court, Google must take down links to information that could violate the right of Europeans to control private data. The ruling, however, allows Google to decide if the links should stay up in cases where the public is affected by the removal. So politicians can't ask that former scandals be scrubbed, but average citizens — like Mario Costeja González, who brought the leading case against Google Spain in 2010 — must be allowed to clear their names online.
González complained that the company should take down links to 1998 pieces in the Spanish newspaper La Vanguardia that advertised a real-estate auction of his home, held as a means for him to repay a Social Welfare debt. The embarrassing information, he says, is no longer relevant to his life and shouldn't pop up when you search his name.
The decision comes as a blow to Google, which must now determine how to deal with a ruling that could fundamentally alter how the search engine works. It's “a disappointing ruling for search engines and online publishers in general,” said a Google representative. The company has described the request as akin to censorship. It's also surprising, as last year, a fact finder for the court recommended that the case be thrown out, saying that it's not a search engine's responsibility to remove legal documents from results. The expert added that the European privacy law cited only applies to incomplete or wrong information posted to the web, not reports that are unsavory to the user.
In a statement on the decision, the judges said that "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." They continue:
The operator of the search engine must ensure, within the framework of its responsibilities, powers and capabilities, that its activity complies with the directive’s requirements. This is the only way that the guarantees laid down by the directive will be able to have full effect and that effective and complete protection of data subjects (in particular of their privacy) may actually be achieved.
The judges describe the directive as having "the objective of protecting the fundamental rights and freedoms of natural persons (in particular the right to privacy) when personal data are processed, while removing obstacles to the free flow of such data."
According to the New York Times, the ruling confirms Europe's commitment to preserving online privacy, even if that means taking extreme measures to do so.