Europe’s top court struck a blow for the "right to be forgotten" Tuesday, ordering Google to delete search results shown to be “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant” at the behest of members of the general public.
In a landmark decision, the Court of Justice of the European Union said the search giant and others must listen and sometimes comply when individuals ask for links to newspaper articles or websites containing personal information to be taken down.
The test case — initiated by the case of a Spanish man who failed to get Google to delete information about the auction of his repossessed house — underlines the battle between advocates of free expression and supporters of privacy rights, who say people should have the right to remove their digital traces from the Internet.
The court found that under European law, the rights of people whose privacy has been infringed outweighed the general public interest. It said individuals have a right to control over their private data, especially if they are not public figures. If they want irrelevant or wrong personal information about themselves "forgotten" from search engine results, they have the right to request it — even if the information was legally published.
People "may address such a request directly to the operator of the search engine ... which must then duly examine its merits," the ruling said.
Whether or not the request should be granted would depend "on the nature of the information in question and its sensitivity for the data subject's private life and on the interest of the public in having that information, an interest which may vary."
As such, Google must remove links to pages containing the information from results "unless there are particular reasons, such as the role played by the data subject in public life, justifying a preponderant interest of the public in having access to the information when such a search is made," the court said.
Google could not immediately be reached for comment.
Lawyers for the company, based in Mountain View, California, argued that Google doesn't control personal data but just offers links to information already freely and legally available on the Internet. It had also argued that it should not be forced to play the role of censor, especially when it offers links to information that was legally published.
The case was referred to the European court by Spain's appeal court, the Audiencia Nacional, which has fielded at least 180 similar complaints.
The leading case was from a Spaniard named Mario Costeja, who said that when his name was Googled, it brought up references to an advertisement for a property auction related to an unpaid social welfare debt. Costeja and the agency argued that the debt had long been settled and that the reference should be removed.
The ad originally appeared in a Spanish newspaper and was tracked by Google when the newspaper digitized its archive.
Al Jazeera and wire services