The highest European court on Tuesday gave individuals the right to influence what can be learned about them through Web searches, rejecting long-established practices about the free flow of information on the Internet.
Before, people who did not like what was being said about them online needed to go to the original source of the information and persuade the website to delete it. That was arduous and often impossible.
But the European court said the middleman — search engines — could be asked to simply delete the links.
In some ways, the court is trying to erase the last 25 years, when people learned to routinely Google every potential suitor, partner or friend. In 1990, finding out the true history of a blind date or business collaborator was practically impossible.
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“It could result in giving people a line-item veto over results on searches about themselves,” said Jonathan Zittrain, a professor at Harvard Law School. “Some will see this as corrupting. Others will see it as purifying.”
He is siding with the former group, warning that Google research results could become equivalent to About.me, which allows people to set up links to material about them.
Others argue that search was never neutral and that the ruling, by the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg, is in tune with how people want to live.
“More and more Internet users want a little of the ephemerality and the forgetfulness of the pre-digital days,” said Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, professor of Internet governance at the Oxford Internet Institute. “They don’t want their drunken pictures to follow them the next 30 years.”
The court said data-privacy officials in European countries would have the final say on whether a link should be removed but gave no objective standard beyond saying that search links should be “relevant.”
It also said Google should err on the side of removing links when requested.
But one person’s relevance is another’s ancient history.
Should a businessman be able to expunge a link to his bankruptcy a decade ago? How about five years?
Could a would-be politician get a drunken-driving arrest removed by calling it a youthful folly?
The burden of fulfilling the court’s order will fall largely on Google, which is by far the dominant search engine in Europe but is also a potential logistical headache for search-engine counterparts Yahoo and Microsoft’s Bing.
The ruling applies to the 28-nation bloc of more than 500 million people and all search engines in Europe. It has no immediate effect on the way search engines display their results outside Europe.
The decision stunned Google and just about everyone else. Google said it would need time to study the decision, which is a final judgment and cannot be appealed.
The case before the court involved a Spanish lawyer who tried to get Google to remove links to online newspaper accounts from the 1990s of his debt and tax troubles.
The court ruled that companies like Google could be “obliged to remove links to Web pages” unless there are “particular reasons, such as the role played by the data subject in public life,” according to a summary.
A search engine would have to remove the links even when the original “publication in itself on those pages is lawful,” the court said.
The ruling would not necessarily require that the original publisher of the information delete it from its own website — arguing that individual websites are harder for users to find than information gathered through the data-sweeping capabilities of a search engine like Google’s.
Al Verney, a spokesman for Google, said in a statement that the decision was “a disappointing ruling for search engines and online publishers in general.”
Google was “very surprised” that the judgment is so different from a preliminary ruling by the court last year that mostly went in the company’s favor, he said.
Some Internet experts said the court had devised an unwieldy, expensive formula for search engines that could lead to less information being searchable online.
“I expect the default action by search engines will be to take down information in response to complaints,” said Orla Lynskey, a lecturer in law at the London School of Economics.
A trade group for information-technology companies said the court’s decision posed a threat to free expression in Europe.
“This ruling opens the door to large-scale private censorship in Europe,” said James Waterworth, the head of the Brussels office for the Computer and Communications Industry Association, which has Facebook, Redmond-based Microsoft and Google among its members.
“While the ruling likely means to offer protections, our concern is it could also be misused by politicians or others with something to hide who could demand to have information taken down,” he said.
The judgment Tuesday reversed what had seemed a preliminary victory for Google in June 2013, when an adviser to the court, Niilo Jaaskinen, issued an opinion implying that Google did not need to remove the links.
The European case began in 2009 when Mario Costeja, the lawyer in Spain, complained that entering his name in Google’s search engine led to legal notices dating to 1998 in an online version of a Spanish newspaper that detailed his accumulated debts and the forced sale of his property.
Costeja said the debt issues had been resolved many years earlier and were no longer relevant.
When the newspaper that had published the information, La Vanguardia, refused to remove the notices, and when Google refused to expunge the links, Costeja complained to the Spanish Data Protection Agency that his rights to the protection of personal data were violated.
The Spanish authority ordered Google to remove the links in July 2010, but it did not impose any order on La Vanguardia.
Google challenged the order, and the National High Court of Spain referred the case to the European court for advice on how to rule.
Tuesday’s ruling, while indicating what the new legal framework will be for deciding such issues in EU member states, sent the original case back to the Spanish court.
Whatever it might decide in terms of La Vanguardia’s obligation to remove the disputed material from its database, Costeja’s lawyer said it was a victory because Google would be required to remove the links.
“We’re very happy because even though we were confident all along, this has been a very difficult process, given the massive means that Google could use” to defend itself, said Joaquín Muñoz, a partner at Abanlex, a Spanish law firm that specializes in technology cases.
“The fundamental point is that consumers will now know what the rules of the game are and how to defend their rights.”