Europe Orders Google to Let People Sanitize Their Search Results

By Carol Matlack May 13, 2014

Ever wish you could make Google (GOOG) delete that embarrassing tidbit of personal information that turns up whenever someone searches your name? Europeans may soon be able to do just that.

The European Union’s top court ruled today that individuals can demand the removal of links and other information in search results that could threaten their privacy. People “have a right to be forgotten,” the court said.

The case involved a Spanish man who wanted Google to delete a 16-year-old newspaper article about his house being auctioned off for failure to pay taxes. But the ruling, by the Luxembourg-based European Court of Justice, is binding on all 28 EU member countries and involves all search engine owners, not just Google. EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding called it “a clear victory for the protection of personal data of Europeans.”

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Google, not surprisingly, told Bloomberg News that the decision is “disappointing.”

The ruling drew sharp criticism from Internet privacy rights advocates who warned it could undermine freedom of speech. “The principle that you have a right to be forgotten is a laudable one, but it was never intended to be a way for people to rewrite history,” says Emma Carr, acting director of the British group Big Brother Watch.

“Search engines do not host information, and trying to get them to censor legal content from their results is the wrong approach.”

Big Brother Watch said that any removal of personal information should be “tackled at the source,” not through intermediaries such as Google. A second data-protection advocacy group, London-based Open Rights Group, took a similar position, adding that the decision “has major implications for all kinds of Internet intermediaries,” not just search engines.

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Compliance with the ruling could be a nightmare, warns Peter Church, an attorney with the Linklaters law firm in London. Search engine owners “may receive thousands, if not more, requests from individuals asking that their information be removed.” But they would have to weigh each case carefully, Church says, because in some instances “there will be a clear public interest in keeping the information” visible online, such as when public officials are involved.

Americans and other non-EU citizens might also be able to take advantage of the ruling, Church says, by demanding removal of data that’s visible on European sites. “You might get balkanized search results,” he says–so that, for example, certain personal data might be scrubbed from Google’s Spanish site while remaining on its U.S. site.

Google is already battling regulators in several European countries over privacy issues as it adds services and steps up competition with Facebook (FB) for users and advertisers. Last month, Italy fined the company €1 million ($1.38 million) for privacy violations by its Street View service that photographed people without their knowledge.

France and Spain also have fined Google over privacy issues.