People's bad decisions should not follow them forever online, says the European Union's highest court in a decision on Tuesday. The European Court of Justice in Luxembourg ruled that, in certain cases, users may demand that Google remove information about them from its search engine.
While the decision only affects users in Europe, it forces Google, Microsoft, and other websites to reconsider their mostly one-size-fits-all global privacy standards. Google routinely takes down material that violates copyright or defamation laws. But the new ruling targets links to truthful yet unflattering information, such as legal records and newspaper articles.
The case revolves around Mario Costeja Gonzalez, a lawyer in Spain, who sued Google to take down links related to a house of his that was repossessed in 1998. That information was no longer relevant, he argued, and should not appear when people searched for his name online.
The court agrees. Google searches made it too easy to uncover a "vast number of aspects of his private life," according to the ruling, and "without the search engine, the information could not have been interconnected or could have been only with great difficulty." For this reason, newspaper archives and court documents will remain online, but people may now request that the material no longer show up in search results. If researchers wanted to find the removed information, they would need to comb through each website individually.
"This is a disappointing ruling for search engines and online publishers in general," Google spokesman Al Verney says in a statement. "We are very surprised that it differs so dramatically from the [EU] Advocate General's opinion and the warnings and consequences that he spelled out."
Tuesday's decision does not require Google to respond to each takedown request. However, if the search engine does not remove the offending links, individuals may appeal to European regulators. Also, the European Court of Justice did not lay out the exact criteria for which links may be scrubbed from Google's search index. It left that task to national courts and lawmakers.
Europe has long debated establishing a "right to be forgotten" that would allow people to not only delete search engine listings, but also information and photos on social media sites such as Facebook.
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