On March 5, 2010, a lawyer named Mario Costeja González lodged a complaint with the Spanish Data Protection Agency against a newspaper called La Vanguardia. Twelve years earlier, González’s house had been auctioned off to pay his social security debts, and La Vanguardia ran a brief article about it. The article was factually accurate, but González felt it was no longer relevant to his life. He wasn’t happy that it came up when you Googled him either, so he added Google to the complaint for good measure.
The Spanish Data Protection Agency dismissed the complaint against La Vanguardia but–astoundingly–it supported the complaint against Google and asked it to remove the article from its search results. An understandably incredulous Google took the issue to Spain’s National High Court, which turned for advice to the highest legal authority in the European Union, the Court of Justice in Luxembourg. On May 13, contrary to the expectations of Google and virtually everybody else except maybe González, the Court of Justice affirmed the original decision, concluding that a person should be able to demand that a search engine remove links “on the ground that that information may be prejudicial to him or that he wishes it to be ‘forgotten’ after a certain time.” In doing so, the court endorsed a relatively new addition to the catalog of human rights: it’s being called the right to be forgotten.
Make no mistake, this is a watershed moment in human history: mankind, after spending untold millennia looking for ways to be remembered by posterity, must now beg to be forgotten instead. It puts one in mind of the Cumaean Sibyl, who, after being granted a lifespan of a thousand years by Apollo, longed only to die. To the list of things that our ancestors would have found utterly unintelligible about the way we live now we can add, right next to the epidemic of obesity, its informational equivalent: an epidemic of memory.
Apart from the eurovision song contest, it’s hard to think of anything more quintessentially European than the Court of Justice’s ruling. It wouldn’t, and won’t ever, happen in the U.S., where the First Amendment is holy writ and, as such, tends to outweigh the right to privacy and people’s feelings about their embarrassing real estate auctions. Moreover, we Americans are more apt than Europeans to bow in fear and awe before the aura of entitlement that emanates from Silicon Valley. The idea of allowing a mere private citizen to violate the integrity of Google’s sacred cache is more or less unthinkable.
Not surprisingly, the ruling hasn’t been universally popular. Google issued a statement calling it “disappointing.” The New York Times editorial board came out against it on the grounds that it “could undermine press freedoms and free speech.” Index on Censorship, an international organization promoting freedom of expression, was blunter: “This is akin to marching into a library and forcing it to pulp books.” (It’s not, actually: no one’s pulping the original data, just the links to them.)
It’s an open question whether the Court of Justice’s ruling can even be enforced. The prospect of deciding, case by case, what is or isn’t relevant and to whom is daunting, expensive and philosophically fraught. If a politician has a sketchy past, can he or she get links to it taken down? Or is the right to be forgotten outweighed by the public’s need to be informed? And the court’s ruling doesn’t just affect Google; it applies to all search engines, and who knows who else. Facebook, the archive of humanity’s collective embarrassing past, should be concerned.
Whether or not its ruling is enforceable, the Court of Justice has hit upon an elusive truth about the way we live now, one that’s probably easier to see from Luxembourg than it is from Mountain View. Public information isn’t just public: the meaning of public has changed. Just as we’re altering the physical climate we live in, we’ve changed our information environment too. Information used to propagate slowly, pooling and collecting in some places but not others. Now it propagates instantly and evenly, everywhere at once. The past is supposed to fade and blur, but the Internet keeps our entire lives relentlessly in focus, for everyone, forever.
The Court of Justice has reminded us that we don’t necessarily have to accommodate ourselves to technology; we can demand that technology adapt itself to us. Just because something is technologically feasible, and part of a business plan, doesn’t mean it’s a good thing. In a way it’s too late for González: no one’s ever going to forget about that real estate auction now. Nevertheless his point stands: the past isn’t what it used to be. But maybe it should be.
This appears in the May 26, 2014 issue of TIME.