GOOGLE and other search engines have been thrust into an unwanted new role — caretaker of people’s reputations — after Europe’s highest court ruled that individuals should have some say over what information comes up when their names are Googled.
The landmark ruling by the Court of Justice of the European Union will force search engines to decide when to censor computer users’ search results across the 28-nation bloc of over 500 million people.
Legal experts said that people could use the ruling to sanitize their past and get references to old debts, long-ago arrests for minor offenses, and other youthful indiscretions erased from Internet searches.
The court decision — which cannot be appealed — was celebrated by some as a victory for privacy rights in the Internet age. Others warned it could lead to online censorship.
The ruling applies to EU citizens and all search engines in Europe, including Yahoo and Microsoft’s Bing.
It has no immediate impact on the way Google and other search engines display their results in the US.
In its ruling, the EU court said search engines must listen and sometimes comply when people ask for the removal of links to newspaper articles or other sites containing outdated or otherwise objectionable information about themselves.
Google Inc. has long maintained that people with such complaints should take it up with the websites that posted the material. In the EU ruling, “there’s not much guidance for Google on how to figure out how and when they are supposed to comply with take-down requests,” said Joel Reidenberg, a Fordham University law professor.
The case was referred to the European Court from Spain’s National Court, which asked for advice in the case of Mario Costeja, a Spaniard who found a search of his name turned up links to a notice that his property was due to be auctioned because of an unpaid welfare debt. The notice had been published in a Spanish newspaper in 1998, and was tracked by Google’s robots when the newspaper digitised its archive.
Costeja argued that the debt had long since been settled, and he asked Spain’s privacy agency to have the reference removed. In 2010, the agency agreed, but Google refused and took the matter to court, saying it should not be asked to censor material already published by the newspaper.
Costeja’s case will now return to Spain for final judgment. Debates over the “right to be forgotten” — to have negative information erased after a period of time — have surfaced across the world as tech users struggle to reconcile the forgive-and-forget nature of human relations with the unforgiving permanence of the Internet.