The European Union Court of Justice in Luxembourg ruled this week that online giant Google must remove search results that contain outdated or irrelevant personal information when requested by EU citizens. The controversial ruling seeks to establish privacy rules for individuals online who wish to exercise their "right to be forgotten."
"The ruling confirms the need to bring today's data protection rules from the 'digital stone age' into today's modern computing world," EU justice commissioner Viviane Reding said. "Companies can no longer hide behind their servers being based in California or anywhere else in the world."
The European Union Court of Justice is roughly analogous to the US Supreme Court. Its ruling comes in the wake of a lawsuit filed by Mario Costeja González, a resident of Spain who argued that Google Search results infringed on his privacy after he discovered a search that noted a house of his had been repossessed and sold at auction over 15 years ago. Since that matter had been resolved long ago, it should no longer be part of his permanent online record, Mr. González complained.
The privacy-friendly EU agrees. Citing EU data protection laws, the court ruled that Google must permanently remove website links that refer to Mr. González's long-ago legal issues from its search results. And it is ordering the online giant to make similar changes to search results when petitioned by individuals from the EU who believe the information that Google presents about them is outdated or irrelevant. Google, as the "responsible operator" for transmitting data about individuals, must police that data transmission.
Mr. González is pleased by the verdict, of course.
"Like anyone would be when you tell them they're right, I'm happy," he said. "I was fighting for the elimination of data that adversely affects people's honor, dignity and exposes their private lives. Everything that undermines human beings, that's not freedom of expression."
Google, not so much.
"This is a disappointing ruling for search engines and online publishers in general," a Google statement notes. "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 analyze the implications."
What's unclear is whether this legal requirement will be observed outside the EU. Google doesn't have to comply with such requests from those who are not EU citizens, but the company may simply do so in order to have consistent policies worldwide. Certainly, the issue is open for debate.
"You have a collision between a right to be forgotten and a right to know," Google chairman Eric Schmidt said of the ruling. "From Google's perspective, that's a balance. Google believes, having looked at the decision which is binding, that the balance that was struck was wrong."