Google must honor requests to delete links, EU court says

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BRUSSELS — The highest court in the European Union decided Tuesday that Google must grant users of its search engine a right to delete links about themselves in some cases, including links to legal records.

The decision by the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg is a blow for Google, which has sought to avoid the obligation to remove links when requested by European users of its service.

By ruling that an Internet company like Google must comply with European privacy laws when operating in the European Union — a consumer market of about 550 million people — the court is indicating that such companies must operate in a fundamentally different way than they do in the United States.

Instead of operating as a single around-the-world, around-the-clock forum for other people’s information, Google — and potentially companies like Facebook and probably Twitter — would need in the 28 EU countries to become more actively involved in refereeing complaints from users about information carried online.

The companies would assume the responsibility and cost for removing that information if requested to do so by national data officials on behalf of people raising complaints.

“This sounds like a landmark judgment,” said Peter Hustinx, a top EU official for data protection. “The court is saying that Google isn’t just selling adverts in Europe, but is providing content along with those services. If you are a regular citizen, it gives you a remedy anywhere in Europe for you to ask companies to take down content connected to you.”

The ruling would apply only to Europe and probably have no effect for users of Google or other digital media services in the United States, where freedom of speech in many cases overrides privacy considerations, assuming the information is accurate. But Europe tends to strike more of a balance between speech and privacy rights.

In Tuesday’s ruling, the European court indicated that individuals may have the right to have links to unflattering material removed from the Internet even if the original was true and legally posted. The case involved a lawyer in Spain who had sought to have links removed to online newspaper accounts from the 1990s of his debt and tax troubles.

The ruling comes as momentum builds in Europe to adopt an even more far-reaching privacy law already under negotiation by lawmakers that includes a tougher so-called right to be forgotten, or “erasure” as it is termed in draft legislation, that also would apply to companies like Facebook.

Helping drive that impulse in the last year have been Edward J. Snowden’s revelations of data privacy intrusions by the U.S. National Security Agency and some other international law enforcement agencies, which in some cases have involved gleaning information collected by Internet companies.

Al Verney, a spokesman for Google, said in a statement that the decision was “a disappointing ruling for search engines and online publishers in general,” and that the company would “take time” to analyze the implications. Google was “very surprised” that the judgment “differs so dramatically” from a preliminary ruling by the court last year that mostly went in the company’s favor, he said.

Because the European Court of Justice is the highest court in the European Union, Google cannot appeal Tuesday’s decision.

United States - North America - Europe - Western Europe - European Union - Spain - European Commission - Google Inc


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