THE EUROPEAN COURT OF JUSTICE (ECJ) has ruled that internet search engines can be held responsible for sensitive personal information in results and must remove it if requested.
This means that firms like Google can be required to filter search results and remove links referring to people to which those people have objected. The decision comes after the European Commission made a proposal for the right to be forgotten.
The ruling addresses a Spanish man's complaint that a Google search result dating from 2012 reflected on him and affected his privacy. This week the ECJ found that individuals should be able to legally force internet search providers to remove links from search results.
"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 and, where the operator does not grant his request, bring the matter before the competent authorities in order to obtain, under certain conditions, the removal of that link from the list of results," the judges said in the ruling (pdf).
"An internet search engine operator is responsible for the processing that it carries out of personal data which appear on web pages published by third parties."
As well as contentious content, the report said that search engines might have to remove data that is irrelevant and outdated.
Google, which will be at the sharp end of this decision, said that it needed some time to consider the ruling, and added that it is a departure from prior European policy.
"This is a disappointing ruling for search engines and online publishers in general," said a Google spokesperson.
"We are very surprised that it differs so dramatically from the Advocate General's opinion and the warnings and consequences that he spelled out. We now need to take time to analyse the implications."
The Open Rights Group (ORG) said that the ruling could offset the balance between public and private interests and expose the internet to censorship.
"We need to take into account individuals' right to privacy but this ruling raises significant concerns," said Javier Ruiz, policy director at ORG.
"If search engines are forced to remove links to legitimate public content, it could lead to online censorship. This case has major implications for all kind of internet intermediaries, not just search engines." µ