The verdict is in on individuals' right to be forgotten on the Internet. The highest court in all of Europe ruled that Internet users have the right to influence what others can learn about them in online searches.
In the past, when people were not happy about what others were saying about them online, they had to go to the original source of information and ask them to take it down from the website. On Tuesday, however, the Court of Justice of the European Union in Luxembourg mandated that search engines must delete links to websites that carry the information in question. Experts believe the ruling could force Google and other search engines, including Microsoft's Bing and Yahoo, to delete search results leading to ages-old criminal records, debts and unflattering drunken images.
"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," according to a summary of the judgment released by the high court.
"Thus, 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 court continued.
The court also said that, if the nature of the information makes it such that it is in the interest of the public to gain access to that information, search engines have to weigh the individual's right to privacy against the "role played by the data subject in public life."
The final ruling, which is un-appealable, has stoked the fiery debate over the aptly termed right to be forgotten. Those who approved of the ruling said it was about time that the court upheld individuals' right to privacy in a world where practically everything that goes online leaves a permanent mark. Those on the other side of the debate see the judgment as a major blow against the long-standing tradition of free speech on the Internet.
"This is a big ruling with significant implications for the future of free speech on the Web," said Jeff Rosen, president of the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. "The standards for removing content are vague and malleable. That's what makes the decision so alarming."
Others, however, say that search engines such as Google were never neutral and are confident that the ruling will raise privacy standards, at least in Europe, where data protection rules are much stricter than in the U.S.
"More and more Internet users want a little of the ephemerality and the forgetfulness of the pre-digital days. They don't want their drunken pictures to follow them the next 30 years," said Professor Viktor Mayer-Schonberger at the Oxford Internet Institute.
For its part, Google found the ruling "disappointing." Google spokesman Matt Kallman said they are "very surprised" that the court issued what seemed to be the complete opposite of an opinion released in 2013 by Niilo Jaaskinen, adviser to the high court, saying that Google was not responsible for cleaning up its searches.
The ruling, which sweeps over the E.U.'s 28 countries, stemmed from a 2009 case filed by Spanish lawyer Mario Costeja Gonzales, who complained that a Google search for his name came up with links to a Spanish newspaper that published details about the foreclosure of his property due to accumulated welfare debts, which Gonzales argued are no longer relevant.
The ruling does not immediately affect what search results regarding an individual's personal information will show up in the U.S. and other countries outside Europe. However, Google said it needs to "take time to analyze the implications," one of which is most likely going to be a different set of search rules for different countries.