Google and other search engines routinely field takedown requests to remove material from results that violates copyright, defamation, and other laws. But a ruling today (pdf) by the European Union’s highest court will now require them to consider takedown requests for material that is merely embarrassing or inconvenient, rather than illegal.
The European Court of Justice said Google must remove links in search results when requested by individuals, such as the Spanish man who brought a case against the search engine in order to remove links to a 1998 newspaper article about the sale of property to settle his debts. The court said that the “initially lawful processing of accurate data” could, over time, become “inadequate,” “irrelevant,” or “excessive” in the eyes of the people who feature in the material.
Today’s ruling significantly expands the scope of internet companies’ responsibility for what appears in search results. It also raises questions about how it will apply in practice—if a big portion of the EU’s 500 million residents ask to remove search results, the work will quickly add up—and whether the requirements will affect the availability of information in countries outside the EU. The ruling does not address either point directly.
Instead of a mere conduit for information, Google and its ilk should be considered “controllers” of personal data, the court said. The Spanish newspaper notice that brought about the case can still be found offline, as can all manner of property records, criminal histories, and other official documents for people determined to dig them up. But the ease with which such material can now be found on the web with just a few clicks has driven privacy advocates to push for greater control of how personal data is displayed on the web.
“Data belongs to the individual, not to the company,” said European commissioner Viviane Reding, hailing today’s court ruling. “Unless there is a good reason to retain this data, an individual should be empowered—by law—to request erasure of this data.” Google called the judgment “disappointing,” and said it would “take time to analyze the implications.” EU countries have clashed in the recent past over the so-called “right to be forgotten,” with the UK particularly concerned about the practicality and cost of enforcing the regime introduced by the court today.