People should have some say over the results that pop up when they conduct a vanity search online.
That is the thrust of a landmark European court decision that Google must listen and sometimes comply when individuals ask the internet search giant to remove links to newspaper articles or websites containing personal information.
Campaigners say the ruling from Europe’s highest court effectively backs individual privacy rights over the freedom of information.
In an advisory judgment stemming from a lawsuit against Google that will impact on all search engines, including Yahoo and Bing, the Court of Justice of the European Union said a search on a person’s name yields a results page that amounts to an individual profile, one that a person has some right to control under European privacy laws.
The court said people should be able to ask to have links to private information removed, even when a non-Google website is still hosting the information.
The court said people “may address such a request directly to the operator of the search engine … which must then duly examine its merits”. It said search engines must weigh “the legitimate interest of internet users potentially interested in having access to that information” against the right to privacy and protection of personal data.
When an agreement cannot be reached, the Luxembourg-based court said the matter can be referred to a local judge or regulator.
The decision came as a surprise since it went counter to the advice the court received from its own leading lawyer last year. The European court became involved after a Spanish appeals court asked for its opinion in 200 pending cases. Initially billed as a test of “the right to be forgotten”, the impact of the wider ruling could be far and wide.