LONDON — Europe’s highest court limited the reach of the landmark online privacy law known as “right to be forgotten” Tuesday, restricting people’s ability to control what information is available about them on the internet.
In a decision with broad implications for the regulation of the internet, the European Court of Justice ruled that the privacy rule cannot be applied outside the European Union. In another ruling, the court said the right to free expression and information must be weighed carefully before deleting links related to certain categories of personal data.
The decisions more carefully define the scope of the right to be forgotten, which is a centerpiece of the European Union’s internet privacy laws. The standard, which was established in 2014, can be used to force Google and other search engines to delete links to websites, news articles and databases that include personal information considered old, no longer relevant or not in the public interest.
The ruling to limit the geographical reach of the right to be forgotten is a victory for Google against a French effort to force the company and other search engines to take down links globally.
The decision is likely to head off international disputes over the reach of European laws outside the 28-nation bloc. The court said Europe could not impose the right to be forgotten on countries that did not recognize the law.
Critics had raised concerns that if other countries, particularly more restrictive governments, adopted rules to force global takedowns it could lead to broad censorship of the internet.
“The balance between right to privacy and protection of personal data, on the one hand, and the freedom of information of internet users, on the other, is likely to vary significantly around the world,” the court said in its decision.
The court said the right to be forgotten “is not an absolute right.”
The cases cannot be appealed and national courts across the European Union must abide by the decisions.
Google praised the decisions.
“Since 2014, we’ve worked hard to implement the right to be forgotten in Europe, and to strike a sensible balance between people’s rights of access to information and privacy,” Peter Fleischer, Google’s senior privacy counsel, said in a statement. “It’s good to see that the court agreed with our arguments.”
The right to be forgotten has been at the center of a debate about balancing privacy and free speech in the internet age. In Europe, both principles are written into the EU Constitution.
Supporters say the policy is a much-needed legal tool for people, particularly those outside the public eye, to have personal information removed.
But critics have argued that its reach has broadened over time and that countries within the European Union are interpreting it differently. They point to examples of the rule being used to target news articles. The policy is expanding into areas it wasn’t intended, they add, and is being abused to keep information out of the public domain.
Google has become a quasi-judicial authority on the right to be forgotten, determining what constitutes private information or not. It has received requests to take down more than 3.3 million links, and has granted about 45%, according to company figures.
Jonathan Zittrain, a law professor at Harvard University who studies internet privacy, said concerns about the right to be forgotten remained. He said companies risked fines if they fought a takedown request, but weren’t penalized for deleting something.
“This creates asymmetric pressure on corporate decision-making that will tilt toward individual demands over the public interest,” Zittrain said.
Google, which has created an internal team to review takedown requests, deletes links only within the European Union. Most Google searches occur on country-specific sites like Google.fr in France or Google.it in Italy.
But in 2015, the top data-protection regulator in France, known as CNIL, said that Google’s geographically targeted approach did not go far enough and that it wanted the company to remove links from its global database. The authority argued that a regional application of the rule was worthless because people could still find the information if they were outside Europe.
Google and other opponents of enlarging the territorial reach, including the Wikimedia Foundation, Microsoft Corp., Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the Internet Freedom Foundation, argued people would try to use the rule in Europe to erase unflattering information elsewhere.
“Courts or data regulators in the U.K., France or Germany should not be able to determine the search results that internet users in America, India or Argentina get to see,” Thomas Hughes, executive director of Article 19, a privacy group that supported Google in the case, said in a statement.
The decision leaves open the possibility for France and other national governments within the European Union to force Google to take down links globally in special cases judged necessary to protect an individual’s privacy.
The other case that was decided Tuesday stemmed from an attempt by several individuals to require Google to remove links to websites found when searching for their names. They argued that certain categories of data, such as information related to religion, political beliefs, sex life and past criminal convictions, should be expunged from search results.
The court gave a mixed ruling, saying certain categories of data deserve special consideration but must be weighed against the public’s right to information.
The individuals who brought the case included a politician under investigation, someone convicted of sexual assault against minors and a person referred to as a public relations officer in the Church of Scientology.
Opponents of their demands said removing links would have set a dangerous precedent and made it much easier for information in the public interest to be deleted from the internet.