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 (pictured: Reuters) 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.
Alejandro Tourino, a Spanish lawyer who specialises in mass media issues, said the ruling was a first of its kind and "quite a blow for Google".
"This serves as a basis for all members of the European Union, it is (a) most important ruling and the first time European authorities have ruled on the 'right to be forgotten'," said Tourino.
The "right to be forgotten" is based on the premise that outdated information about people should be removed from the internet after a certain time. A law that would establish that right is still under debate in European Parliament.
Google spokesman Al Verney said the ruling was "disappointing … for search engines and online publishers in general". The company, he said, will need to take time to "analyse the implications".
The referral to the European Court came after Spaniard Mario Costeja searched his name on Google and found 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 years before, and was tracked by Google's robots when the newspaper digitalised its archive.
Costeja argued that the debt had long since been settled and he sued to have the reference removed. Though his case will be sent back to Spanish courts for further review, the European decision strongly implies such requests should be granted.
However it is not clear how it will impact other cases also in the Spanish courts, or in other countries.
Debates over the "right to be forgotten" 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 electronic record. But while such proposals have generally been well-received in Europe, many in the US have criticised the "right" as a disguised form of censorship that could allow convicts to delete references to past crimes or politicians to airbrush their records.
Verney noted that the ruling differed "dramatically" from the advice of the court's own senior adviser "and the warnings and consequences that he spelled out".
According to the lawyer, Niilo Jaaskinen, Google was merely offering links to information already available. Today's ruling explicitly rejected that.
Jaaskinen had also said there was no general "right to be forgotten", and warned the court that establishing one could run counter to freedom of expression.
Google, which had argued that it should not be forced to play the role of censor, currently advises users to approach websites that have published information about them as a first step in having it cleared from the internet: once a site removes the content, Google's result links to the material will disappear soon after.
Picture of the European Union Court of Justice: Peter Fuchs/Shutterstock.com.