A European Court Just Did Something U.S. Privacy Activists Have Wanted For Years

A European Court Just Did Something U.S. Privacy Activists Have Wanted For Years

The news: If you have a copyright that is being violated, or if someone is defaming you online, you can request search engines like Google to remove those search results. But what if something isn't strictly criminal but just embarrassing or bad for your reputation? 

The European Court of Justice, the EU's highest court, made a landmark unappealable ruling Tuesday that requires search engines to handle personal requests on objectionable content — you can now ask companies to take down information you just don't want others to see, and they have to comply. Applicable requests could apply to a range of reasons, from personal harm to outdatedness or irrelevance. 

"If, following a search made on the basis of a person's name, the list of results displays a link to a web page which contains information on the person in question, that data subject may approach the operator directly," the court ruling read.

The background: The court case started in Spain, where a resident asked Google to take down search results for an old article that detailed how his house was sold after he failed to pay his taxes. Google refused, leading the high court to rule that people "may address such a request directly to the operator of the search engine ... which must then duly examine its merits."

"Data belongs to the individual, not to the company," EU Commissioner Viviane Reding said. "Unless there is a good reason to retain this data, an individual should be empowered — by law — to request erasure of this data."

But search engines are concerned this amounts to censoring information that is legally and freely available online. 

"This is a disappointing ruling for search engines and online publishers in general," Google said in a statement.

Why this is important: The ruling seriously bolsters the often-contested "right to be forgotten." While advocates for freedom of expression believe that all information should be readily available, others who support privacy rights argue that people should be able to censor personal information online. 

Since 2012, the European Commission has been considering a "right to be forgotten" law that would allow people to request deletion of personal data online. The U.K. has suggested that it would opt out of any such law.

It's important to note that this ruling won't lead to content being removed from third-party sites; this only applies to the search engine results. But this also means extra work on search engines' end — if the EU's 500 million residents start piling up requests to remove unflattering links about themselves, Google's employees will have to judge all the requests on a case-by-case basis, which would be a serious burden.

Still, this is welcome news for the general public and a big win for the privacy movement. Content lives on the Internet forever, but this ruling will make it just a little harder for people to find things that make you look bad.