Google, and other search engines must delete links to outdated embarrassing or derogatory information if a user asks the company to do so, Europe’s highest court ruled this week. The ruling, which does not apply to United States users, is a victory for privacy advocates — but a major blow to Google, which says that blocking links isn’t as easy as it looks and could prove extremely expensive.
Google is facing dozens of privacy cases in European courts, but the landmark ruling by the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg stems from a case brought by a Spanish man who wanted Google to block links to newspaper articles about the repossession of his house 16 years ago. The man argued that the case had long since been resolved and should now be “forgotten,” as guaranteed by European law.
European Law Includes ‘Right To Be Forgotten’
The European Union’s data protection laws include a “right to be forgotten,” meaning that European citizens are theoretically protected against the spread of outdated information that may reflect poorly on them.
The court allowed exceptions for information that would have wide public interest, saying that Google must remove old, embarrassing links “unless there are particular reasons, such as the role played by the data subject in public life, justifying a preponderant interest of the public.”
Image-conscious celebrities, in other words, would have a difficult time removing old, awkward photos of themselves, for example.
Google Calls Court’s Ruling ‘Disappointing’
A Google spokesperson called the court’s decision “a disappointing ruling for search engines and online publishers in general.”
While users have always been able to request that certain links be removed by Google, the search engine could easily refuse, and it was up to the user to prove that the links contained information that violated privacy laws. But the European court’s decision reverses that burden of proof.
If a user requests that Google take down a link, it is now up to the company to show that the link deserves to remain.
Ruling Establishes That Google Is A Content Provider After All
“This sounds like a landmark judgment,” Peter Hustinx, a European Union data protection official told The New York Times. “The court is saying that Google isn’t just selling adverts in Europe, but is providing content along with those services. If you are a regular citizen, it gives you a remedy anywhere in Europe for you to ask companies to take down content connected to you.”
Google has always argued that the search engine itself has no control over content and is not responsible for anything that turns up in a Google search. A ruling last year agreed with Google on that point. But the high court’s ruling — which leaves no room for appeal by Google — turned the earlier decision on its head.
“An internet search engine operator is responsible for the processing that it carries out of personal data which appear on web pages published by third parties,” the court held, ruling hat Google must take responsibility for its search engine results — and weed out old ones that reflect badly on users, if a person asks Google to do so.