EU Court's Google Ruling: Are We Back In A World Without Search Engines?

"Information wants to be free" was the rallying cry of early technology activists.

So much for that.

The European Union's Court of Justice ruled Thursday that Google Inc. (NASDAQ:GOOG) must delete search results linking to information that is "inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant" -- even if the data is accurate.

The startling ruling has important implications for individuals worrying about their online reputations. It will affect tech companies throughout Europe and in the U.S., which are scrambling to respond, and it may reshape the role of the Internet altogether.

The court ruled that Internet search engines are responsible for how they process and reveal personal data that appears on Web pages published by third parties.

"The most important harm of this decision is not to the search engine companies, but to the public at large, and its ability to find accurate public information," said Jonathan Zittrain, professor of Internet law at Harvard Law School, in a blog post.

The EU court's own advocate general, Niilo Jääskinen, wrote in June 2013 that “search engine service providers are not responsible, on the basis of the Data Protection Directive, for personal data appearing on Web pages they process.” But Tuesday's ruling appeared to counter that view.

A Google spokesperson said it was disappointed in the ruling, and that the company needed time to analyze the court's verdict.

Yahoo, Inc. (NASDAQ:YHOO) said it's unsure how the ruling would affect its business and users.

"Since our founding almost twenty years ago, we’ve supported an open and free Internet; not one shaded by censorship,” a Yahoo spokesperson told International Business Times. “We’re now carefully reviewing the European Court of Justice’s decision to assess the impact for our business and for our users.”

A representative from Microsoft, which operates the Bing search engine, declined to comment.

Google and other search engines will now be forced to remove search results that appear under a person’s name “not because they are false, or infringe copyright, but because they violate a ‘respect for private life’ or a ‘right to protection of personal data,’” Zittrain said.

If the decision leads to litigation and damages, it could cause search engines to remove any results listed under the names of people who ask to keep their information private to avoid further trouble, Zittrain said.

The case began when a man in Spain claimed that his privacy rights were infringed by a Google search of his name that disclosed an auction for his repossessed home. He argued the information was no longer relevant since the repossession had long been settled.

“That’s not personal, secret information that was somehow uncovered,” Zittrain said. “It’s a public record or fact made more searchable. In fact, I can’t tell if the Spanish citizen actually won anything. The Court’s own press release names him and the fact that he at one point owed so much money that he had a property foreclosed.”

The court apparently “doesn’t see a problem with publishing the very data it thinks sensitive enough to be worthy of an entirely new category of protection,” he noted.

The case raises the question of whether "true but regrettable facts in the public domain are something that a person should be able to control." In other words, Zittrain said, the ruling attempts to restore the status quo that existed before the advent of search engines.

Is that, ultimately, in the public's interest?

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