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People should have some say over the results that pop up when they conduct a vanity search online, says Europe’s highest court.

In a landmark decision, The Court of Justice of the European Union says Google must listen and sometimes comply when individuals ask the Internet search giant to remove links to newspaper articles or websites containing personal information.

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Campaigners say the ruling effectively backs individual privacy rights over the freedom of information.

In an advisory judgment stemming from a lawsuit against Google that will impact on all search engines, including Yahoo and Microsoft’s Bing, the court says a search on a person’s name yields a results page that amounts to an individual profile, one that a person has some right to control under European privacy laws. As such, the court says people should be able to ask to have links to private information removed. That’s true even when a non-Google website is hosting the information.

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The referral to the European Court came after Spaniard Mario Costeja searched his name on Google and found links to a notice that his property was due to be auctioned because of an unpaid welfare debt. The notice had been published in a Spanish newspaper years before, and was tracked by Google’s robots when the newspaper digitalized its archive.

Costeja argued the debt had long since been settled, and he sued to have the reference removed. Though his case will now be sent back to Spanish courts for further review, the European decision strongly implies requests like Costeja’s should be granted.

In the ruling, the court says people “may address such a request directly to the operator of the search engine, which must then duly examine its merits.” In addition, it says search engines must weigh “the legitimate interest of Internet users potentially interested in having access to that information” against the right to privacy and protection of personal data.

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When an agreement can’t be reached, the Luxembourg-based court says the matter can be referred to a local judge or regulator.

The decision came as a surprise since it went counter to the advice the court received from its own top lawyer last year. The European court became involved after a Spanish appeals court asked for its opinion in 200 pending cases. Initially billed as a test of “the right to be forgotten,” the impact of Tuesday’s wider ruling could be far and wide.

Alejandro Tourino, a Spanish lawyer who specializes in mass media issues, says the ruling was a first of its kind and “quite a blow for Google.”

“This serves as a basis for all members of the European Union, it is [a] most important ruling and the first time European authorities have ruled on the ‘right to be forgotten,’” says Tourino, who has worked for The Associated Press in several legal cases and the author of “The Right to be Forgotten and Privacy on the Internet.”

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The “right to be forgotten” is based on the premise that outdated information about people should be removed from the Internet after a certain time. A law that would establish that right is still under debate in European Parliament.

Google spokesman Al Verney says Tuesday’s ruling was “disappointing… for search engines and online publishers in general.” The company, he says, will “now need to take time to analyze the implications.”

CBC reports the ruling will cost search engines, as they will have to implement new takedown measures and find ways to distinguish between public and private figures.

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But it’s unclear how it will impact other cases in the Spanish docks, such as that of a plastic surgeon who wants mention of a botched surgery, as well as cases in other countries.

Debates over the “right to be forgotten” have surfaced across the world as tech users struggle to reconcile the forgive-and-forget nature of human relations with the unforgiving permanence of the electronic record. But while such proposals have generally been well-received in Europe, many in the U.S. have critiqued the right as a disguised form of censorship that could allow convicts to delete references to past crimes or politicians to airbrush their records.

Still, limited forms of the right exist in the U.S. and elsewhere, including in relation to crimes committed by minors or bankruptcy regulations, both of which usually require that records be expunged in some way.

Originally published on Advisor.ca

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