E.U. Court: Search Engines Must Remove Links on Request

BRUSSELS — In directive that likely will have wide ramifications, European Union's highest court ruled Tuesday that individuals can ask search engines to remove links to news articles, court cases, legal judgments and other documents in search results for their name.

Tuesday's ruling by the European Court of Justice only affects search results, and not the original article or website. The court's decision is final and cannot be appealed.

Search operators won't have to comply with every request to stop linking to certain pieces of information, according to the Luxembourg-based court. But if they don't comply, individuals can ask their national data-protection authorities to order the links to that information to be deleted.

The court reasoned in the case that because search results linked to a person's name have such a huge impact on people's lives, they should have the right to get certain material removed and "be forgotten." But the court left open possible alternative interpretations in setting broad parameters of what would be an allowable request.  

"This balance may, however, depend, in specific cases, on the nature of the information in question and its sensitivity for the data subject's private life," the court said in a case that was in response to a request for guidance on E.U. privacy laws from a court in Spain.

The court in Spain asked the European Court of Justice to settle a conflict that pitted Google versus Spain's data-protection regulator, which had to assess 180 cases brought by individuals upset with search results relating to their names for various reasons.

The decision contradicts the position of the European Union's advocate general, who offered an opinion last year. The opinion said search operators were under no obligation to honor take-down link requests.

A Google spokesman told Wired today that “this is a disappointing ruling for search engines and online publishers in general."

"We are very surprised that it differs so dramatically from the advocate general’s opinion and the warning and consequences that he spelled out," the spokesman said. "We now need to take time to analyze the implications.”

On leave from her role as European Court of Justice commissioner, Judge Viviane Reding said on her Facebook page that today's judgement is "a clear victory for the protection of personal data of Europeans."

"Companies can no longer hide behind their servers being based in California or anywhere else in the world," she said. "No matter where the physical server of a company processing data is located, non-European companies, when offering services to European consumers, must apply European rules.

"The data belongs to the individual, not to the company. And unless there is a good reason to retain this data, an individual should be empowered — by law — to request erasure of this data."

View E.U. directive