The European Courts of Justice have ruled that search engine results must be deleted on demand if they are seen to be “irrelevant or outdated”.
The ruling, which applies to all 28 EU members states, marks a significant blow to Google’s European operations.
Search engines and online publishers will potentially be required to help users redact their information from the internet. This will require tech companies to hire large teams to process and assess the legitimacy of such requests which could be costly.
The Guardian’s James Ball sees the outcome as “a huge incentive for tech investment to get the hell out of Europe.”
However the impact of the ruling may also extend to both new and older tech companies outside of the EU.
The European Commission’s vice-president has since publicly stated that „Companies can no longer hide behind their servers being based in California or anywhere else in the world.“
It is unlikely for a ruling like this to follow in the US, since, as the LA Times has commented, “Too many industries and government agencies in this country flourish by appropriating personal information without permission from, or even the awareness of, those concerned.”
In addition to a high cost in new personnel, some commentators have argued the ruling may also decrease the value of search engines by allowing individuals to redact content.
‘Ridiculous’ and ‘disappointing’
Jimmy Wales described the ruling as “one of the most wide-sweeping internet censorship rulings that I’ve ever seen.” In an interview with BBC Radio 5, the Wikipedia founder dismissed the court’s verdict as “ridiculous”. Wales claimed that the outcome represents “a real flaw in the European privacy law, which is older than the Internet in many ways.”
Google has responded publicly by saying the ruling is “disappointing”.
“We are very surprised that it differs so dramatically from the advocate general’s opinion and the warnings and consequences that he spelled out.”
Google said it planned to take time to consider the implications of the ruling before commenting on further action.
Jimmy Wales says he expects Google to fight the decision.
The right to be forgotten and right to know
The ruling was made on Tuesday after a Spanish man protested his privacy being infringed by the search engine. An auction notice from 1998 regarding Mario Costeja González’s repossessed house was still appearing in search results.
The outcome the case refers to the ‘data subject’s’ right to be forgotten. Although it does not imply there is an absolute right to demand all personal information removed from the internet, both parties will have to seek “a fair balance” between public information and individual privacy.
Instead of forcing the website or hoster to remove the information, the ruling means that Google as a mediator is responsible for the content it links to.
It is unclear what implications the verdict will have in practice, and if the ruling can also be used to cover up compromising information that perhaps belongs in the public sphere.
Costeja Gonzáles told the Guardian that he was fighting “for the elimination of data that adversely affects people’s honour, dignity and exposes their private lives. Everything that undermines human beings, that’s not freedom of expression.”
Meanwhile Google’s Eric Schmidt reads the issue as a “collision between a right to be forgotten and a right to know” and claims that the EU ruling is an imbalancing of this equation.
Feature image: MANCHESTER – JAN 28: Google website home page on Jan. 28, 2014 in Manchester, UK. Google is an American multinational corporation specializing in Internet-related services and products. via Shutterstock / copyright: JuliusKielaitis