People in Europe can now ask Google to delete sensitive information from its internet search results, a European court ruled on Tuesday.
The European Union Court of Justice ruled that people should have “the right to be forgotten,” which includes erasing traces of their digital past from the internet.
The ruling was sparked by a complaint from a man in Spain, who claimed to the Spanish data protection agency that an auction notice of his repossessed home which appeared in Google’s search results infringed his privacy.
Mario Costeja Gonzalez initially filed the complaint in March 2010 against Google Inc., Google Spain, and a major Spanish newspaper that had published an announcement regarding the auction notice in 1998, according to court documents published by the European Union Court of Justice.
Gonzalez’s situation is one of 180 in Spain in which complainants have requested that Google delete their personal information from the web, Reuters reports.
Here’s what the court papers specifically say in regards to requesting that information be removed from Google:
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 and, where the operator does not grant his request, bring the matter before the competent authorities in order to obtain, under certain conditions, the removal of that link from the list of results.
Viviane Reding, European commissioner for justice of fundamental rights and citizenship, posted to Facebook that she ruling is a success for personal data protection.
“The data belongs to the individual, not to the company,” she wrote. “And unless there is a good reason to retain this data, an individual should be empowered — by law — to request erasure of this data.”
A Google spokesperson sent us the following comment via email regarding the decision:
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.
The European Union Court of Justice’s decision means more than just a simple policy change for Google. The ruling could mean a complete overhaul in the way Google indexes the internet, according to David P. Fidler, professor of law at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law.
“It’s just sort of an astonishing possibility that Google is looking at, to play this sort of role in whether or not the individual has the right to be forgotten,” Fidler said. “I can imagine Google is saying ‘we don’t have any idea what the implications of this are.'”
Fidler pointed out that if one specific case in Spain could play such a heavy role in this ruling, there’s a possibility that Google will face a giant influx of requests to take information down following the decision. Every individual has a different idea of what privacy means, Fidler said, which leaves Google with the daunting and overwhelming task of juggling the public interest versus privacy.
“Google has to sort of figure out this balancing,” he said. “It’s potentially a nightmare of epic proportions for Google.”
Irina Raicu, internet ethics program director at Santa Clara University, said that there’s no straightforward answer when determining whether or not this is a positive step for the internet.
“It’s hard to say that anything is good or bad for the internet overall,” she said. “It obviously impacts some people and not others.”
Raicu pointed out that this idea of erasing your digital past wasn’t an issue until search engines became so prominent.
“I think we have to recognise that search engines themselves change the status quo,” she said. “Some information used to have a certain shelf life. Now with the internet and the web, it’s like ‘Groundhog Day’ all over again.”
It’s too early to determine how this could affect Google’s operations in Europe, but Fidler emphasised that the outcome could potentially be severe. If Google gets slammed with requests to strip links from its search results, the company may be forced to put more resources toward maintaining its search engine in Europe.
“We don’t know at the moment in terms of the implications, but that’s why I can imagine Google’s head is spinning,” he said. “The consequences could be very expensive and very administratively burdensome.”
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