In a judgement that could have far reaching consequences on the way personal data is published online, Europe’s top court Tuesday ruled that people have the right to ask search engines — like Google — to remove personal data in the interest of their privacy or if they want the information on them to be “forgotten”.
The ruling by Luxembourg-based European Union Court of Justice (ECJ) came after a Spanish national, Mario C Gonzalez, complained that a search of his name in Google showed 16-year-old newspaper articles about a real estate auction to recover money he owed.
Since the matter had been resolved long ago, he said the information was not only irrelevant but also infringed on his privacy and should therefore be rendered irretrievable on the net.
The case highlighted the struggle in cyberspace between free-speech advocates and supporters of privacy rights.
Individuals have a right “to be forgotten”, under certain circumstances when their personal data becomes outdated or inaccurate, the ECJ said. The exception would be if the data concerns a public figure or an issue of public interest, it added.
A representative of the court told HT that this judgement sets a guideline on how internet privacy laws will be applied to similar cases across Europe.
Google, having won at earlier stages of this legal battle in Europe, was surprised and ‘disappointed’ at the decision and said it would need time to analyse its implications. The Spanish Data Protection agency welcomed the move and said the decision will affect 220 pending appeals it has against Google.
“Companies can no longer hide behind their servers being based in California or anywhere else in the world” said European Commissioner for Justice, Viviane Reding. “The data belongs to the individual, not to the company.” she added.
The court held search engines responsible for the removal of data as they render information that would otherwise have been hard to trace. There are however questions as to how it will be put into practice.
The ruling comes as momentum builds in Europe to adopt a tough privacy law called “right to be forgotten”, which would apply to companies like Google and Facebook.