Search engine operators like Google can be forced to take down online links, a European Court ruled Tuesday.
Delivering a ruling that could fundamentally change the business practices of search engines, the European Union Court of Justice found that European privacy laws give people the right to have search results that contain information about them removed.
In its ruling, the court said European laws created unique privacy rights for people in the EU.
“Those rights override, as a rule, not only the economic interest of the operator of the search engine but also the interest of the general public in having access to that information upon a search relating to the data subject’s name,” the court said in its ruling.
The ruling does have an exception for cases where “the interference with [a person’s] fundamental rights is justified by the preponderant interest of the general public in having ... access to the information in question.”
The court’s ruling comes in a case involving a Spanish man who wanted Google to take down search results that linked to newspaper articles about his home being repossessed and auctioned off.
Some privacy advocates — including Jan Philipp Albrecht, a member of the European Parliament who represents Germany's Green Party and has vocally opposed U.S. surveillance — applauded the decision.
The court’s ruling “is the right decision,” as it “clarifies that search engine operators are responsible for the processing of personal data even if it comes from public sources,” Albrecht said in a statement.
He also applauded the court for clarifying “that connecting publicly available data to a person’s profile constitutes a new and serious breach of a person's rights” and “that European data protection law is applicable as soon as a data controller is operating on the European market.”
While some hailed the decision as enhancing privacy rights, others said it amounts to online censorship.
“This ruling opens the door to large scale private censorship in Europe,” James Waterworth, the vice president of the Computer and Communications Industry Association, said in a statement.
Waterworth’s group represents tech companies, including Google, Microsoft and Yahoo.
Tuesday’s ruling “may open the floodgates for tens of thousands of requests to have legal, publicly available information about Europeans taken out of a search index or links removed from websites,” Waterworth said.
He added that the decision “will likely affect all companies providing links on the Internet.”