Google suffered a disruptive defeat yesterday, when Europe’s top court ruled search engines should erase links to ‘outdated’ or ‘irrelevant’ information on individuals upon their request. The case was brought forward by Mario Costeja González, a Spanish national who complained to Google after searches of his name brought up an article from 1998, stating his property was to be be auctioned to pay off outstanding welfare debts. The ruling espouses the so-called ‘Right to be Forgotten’, and represents a shift in the balance between personal privacy and freedom of speech on the internet.

The EU Justice Commissioner, Viviane Reding, described the victory as a “clear victory for the protection of personal data of Europeans”.

“The ruling confirms the need to bring today’s data protection rules from the “digital stone age” into today’s modern computing world,” she added. The EU proposed a law ensuring the ‘The Right to be Forgotten’ online back in 2012; yesterday’s ruling is thought to be the first in a series of major updates and revisions to the 1995 Data Protection Directive.

However, not all response to the ruling was so positive- campaign group Index on Censorship stated it “violates the fundamental principles of freedom of expression. It allows individuals to complain to search engines about information they do not like with no legal oversight,” they stated. “This is akin to marching into a library and forcing it to pulp books.” Google is also said to be disappointed by the decision; Google won earlier stages of this legal battle, insisting the onus to remove online material lies with the website and not the search provider. Yesterday’s ruling by Court of Justice of the European Union cannot be appealed or overturned.

The exact implications of this ruling are not yet clear. What is known is that the ruling does not mean search engines absolutely must remove search results upon request. The ruling stated individuals can submit a claim to search engines directly, which “must then duly examine its merits”. Search engines must then consider “the legitimate interest of Internet users potentially interested in having access to that information”. If consensus cannot be reached, the case will be referred to a local judge or regulator.

Google have already restricted search results in some parts of the European Union- in Germany and France, for instance, they’ve restricted searches on fascist paraphernalia and hate-inciting speeches. Though in the wake of this landmark privacy ruling, with more expected to follow, it’s unclear now what impact these restrictions will have in the struggle between the privacy of personal data and the freedom of the internet.

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(Photo credit: Robert Scoble)

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