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Google Must Amend Some Search Results After E.U. Ruling

4 minute read

Correction appended 2:21 pm ET

A European court ruled Tuesday that Google must remove outdated or irrelevant personal information on individuals from its search results if requested, enshrining a right to be “forgotten.”

The European Union Court of Justice in Luxembourg found that individuals have a right to control their private data and that they have the right to request that information be “forgotten” when the results show links to information that is no longer accurate or relevant, the Associated Press reports.

Viviane Reding, the European Commissioner for Justice, welcomed the judgment. “Today’s court judgement [sic] is a clear victory for the protection of personal data of Europeans,” she wrote on her Facebook page. “Big data need big rights.”

The advisory judgment stemmed from a Spanish case against Google, ruling that the search engine is responsible for the content that appears after a query, and that it is not just hosting links to it and summaries about it. It also found that Google must respond to legitimate requests to remove data; exceptions could be made when the information is relative to a public figure, especially a politician, and it would be deemed against the public interest to remove the information.

Two noteworthy examples from the Spain case back in 2011 include a plastic surgeon who was sued for 5 million euro after supposedly botching a client’s breast augmentation and a high school principal who got a ticket for urinating in public. The two successfully convinced Spain’s Data Protection Agency to force Google to remove unflattering links to the incidents from its search engine results. At the time, another 88 people had fought and won the right to have various links about themselves removed as well.

Google can be bad for business, in other words, and one of the larger issues to this story is where to draw the line over what can be removed. Lobbying to have links to things you’ve posted about yourself is one thing; having search engine links to information someone else has posted about you deleted is another, more complicated issue entirely.

By April 2011, Google had already appealed the decision of Spain’s national court five times, arguing that — for better or worse — Google’s role is to index the world’s information. The search giant argued then, and still does today, that if people want inflammatory links about themselves removed from Google, their best course should be to take the issue up directly with whomever posted the content in the first place.

This latest ruling will affect all search engines that operate in Europe — not just Google: If people come across content about themselves they’d like removed, they’ll be able to contact the search engines, who “must listen and sometimes comply” to have the content removed, according to the Associated Press. Unlike the Spain case back in 2011, this ruling can’t be appealed by Google.

Details about how search engines will actually field and act upon requests haven’t been fully hashed out yet, but search engines won’t be automatically required to remove links for each request just because a request is made. According to the ruling, it’ll be up to the search engine to attempt to find a balance between ensuring information is available the public, and a person’s right to privacy. If the search engine and the person requesting information be removed can’t find a common ground, “the matter can be referred to a local judge or regulator,” reports the AP.

Correction: This piece originally misstated the location of the European Union Court of Justice. It is in Luxembourg.

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