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Google must delete search results on request, rules EU court

The top European court says you can ask Google to change or delete search listings that refer to you, giving you a "right to be forgotten".

Google is under fire over online privacy Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

European lawmakers have told Google to forget about it. The top European Court has ruled that citizens have a "right to be forgotten" and can ask the Big G to delete search results about them.

In what could turn out to be one of the biggest shake-ups to online privacy legislation, the European Union Court of Justice decided Tuesday (PDF) that people can ask Google and other online entities to edit or erase online search results if those results contain information that might infringe the privacy of the person in question.

"If, following a search made on the basis of a person's name, the list of results displays a link to a web page which contains information on the person in question, that data subject may approach the operator directly," the judges ruled. If the search operator refuses to change the search results, the person in question can "bring the matter before the competent authorities in order to obtain, under certain conditions, the removal of that link from the list of results."

Following the ruling, a Google spokesperson told CNET: "This is a disappointing ruling for search engines and online publishers in general. We are very surprised that it differs so dramatically from the Advocate General's opinion and the warnings and consequences that he spelled out. We now need to take time to analyse the implications."

Forget about it

Google's search results act like snapshots, so allegations and rumours reported online are preserved in future searches even if the information is out-of-date. If, for example, someone is tried and then acquitted of a crime, the original reports of their arrest and trial still appear in search results -- not necessarily with any indication that the person has later been vindicated.

High-profile cases invoking online privacy include that of former Formula 1 chief Max Mosley, who went to court in several European countries to press Google to remove links to particular photos.

Google argues that it does not control the information it links to, only indexes it, and that amending search results amounts to censorship. "In our view, only the original publisher can take the decision to remove such content," argued Google's Head of Free Expression Bill Echikson last year. "Once removed from the source webpage, content will disappear from a search engine's index."

Today's decision stems from a range of cases brought by the Spanish data protection authority in 2011. They included a case involving auction notices for a house that had been repossessed, which the former owner felt infringed his privacy. After Google challenged the original decision in Spain, which supported the right to be forgotten, the case went to the European Union Court of Justice.

The EU called for a right to be forgotten in 2012, when critics included British Culture secretary Ed Vaizey. Today's ruling applies across the European Union, even applying to American companies such as Google and Facebook.

'Yet another hurdle'

"This is a landmark ruling," says Patrick van Eecke, a partner at international law firm DLA Piper, "confirming the stringent position of the future European Data Protection Regulation on the right to be forgotten. It is yet another hurdle for technology companies, such as search engines, to overcome when they provide services on EU territory."

Today's decision sounds like a victory for individuals, but Patrick van Eecke identifies some problems. "The ruling allows citizens to be less searchable on the Internet, which will have a knock-on effect in a variety of instances, such as background screening by future employers. It also puts into question the neutrality of search engines, as they will be required to remove links to certain Web pages."

James Thomlinson, Partner & Managing Director at international PR agency Bell Pottinger Wired, offers an even bleaker view for online entities: "The ECJ's "right to be forgotten" ruling not only makes for an unrealistic web, but it opens a can of worms for the entire communications industry.

"While the ruling represents fantastic news for the individual, it will come at significant cost to Google and other major content providers as they prepare to deal with increased customer requests and areas of uncertainty. The lack of clarity from the ECJ on relevancy of results and whether or not this ruling applies to individuals in companies -- or even an entire brand's reputation -- will have lawyers up and down the country rubbing their hands in glee."

"Ultimately," says Patrick van Eecke, "this is another test of the balance between freedom of information and privacy rights."