Individuals can ask Google to remove links to news articles, court judgments and other documents in search results for their name, the European Union's highest court has ruled. The surprise decision could significantly disrupt how Google and other search-engine operators work across Europe, said the Wall Street Journal.
The case is about the so-called right to be forgotten. Plaintiffs said individuals should be able to request that old information about them be removed from search engines. Individuals can now request operators remove links that come up during searches.
Google will have to uphold certain requests to take down links to news articles, court judgments and other documents in search results, according to a surprise decision in the European Court of Justice.
The ruling contradicts the position of the European Union's advocate general, who said last year operators were under no obligation to honour such requests.
Google called the ruling disappointing but said it needed time to analyse the implications. Other search engine operators, like Yahoo and Microsoft , which operates Bing, would also be affected by the ruling. No one at Yahoo was immediately available to comment while Microsoft declined to comment.
The decision "makes grim reading for Google and will delight privacy advocates in the EU," Richard Cumbley, information-management and data-protection partner at U.K. law firm Linklaters told the WSJ.
The ruling doesn't mean that search-engine operators have to comply with every request to stop linking to certain pieces of information. However, if operators don't comply, individuals can ask their national data-protection authorities to order the links to that information to be deleted.
"This is going to have wide implications for the Internet, for the use of the Internet, for the Internet economy," said Christopher Kuner, a partner at law firm Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati. "It sets up a system whereby search engine providers have to, when requested, take down instances of persons names, independently of what the website they're indexing does."
The Luxembourg-based court said that because search results linked to a person's name had such a huge impact on people's lives, they should have the right to get certain material removed. But the court left plenty of ambiguity and interpretation in setting the broad parameters of what would be an allowable request. It said, for example, that a balance needs to be struck between the public interest, especially with people who have a prominent role in society.
"This balance may however depend, in specific cases, on the nature of the information in question and its sensitivity for the data subject's private life," it said, as well as the public interest, "which may vary, in particular, according to the role played by the data subject in public life."
National courts across Europe now have the job implementing the high court's ruling. There is no appeal.
Google said it was surprised by the ruling.
"This is a disappointing ruling for search engines and online publishers in general," said Google spokesman Al Verney. "We are very surprised that it differs so dramatically from the Advocate General's opinion and the warnings and consequences that he spelled out."
Tuesday's judgment comes in response to a 2011 request for guidance on EU privacy laws from a Spanish court. The Spanish court was dealing with a case pitting Google against Spain's data-protection regulator, which had to assess 180 cases brought by individuals unhappy with search results relating to their name.
The case the court considered, which sets a precedent for similar cases, concerned Mario Costeja González, who complained to Spain's data protection authority after Google results displayed links to a 1998 announcement in the Spanish newspaper La Vanguardia. At the time La Vanguardia had published an announcement for a real estate auction, which contained details on Mr. Costeja González's social security debts—a situation that is now fully resolved.
Hugo Guidotti, a Madrid surgeon, also asked Google to remove a link to a 1991 report in Spanish newspaper El País about a malpractice lawsuit against him after an allegedly botched breast surgery. The link turns up in Google searches of his name.