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How an E.U. court disrupted Google

Posting in Technology

And not in a good way (at least for Google).

What happened?

The European Union's highest court delivered a blow to Google (and by default other search engines) by ruling that individuals have the "right to be forgotten," meaning individuals may request that Google remove links (PDF) that appear in the search results associated with that person's name.

Here's the key statement from the ruling:

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.

Privacy advocates cheered. Tech companies cringed.

What does the ruling mean for Google, Bing, and other search engines?

We're not even sure yet. Google is saying that it's "surprised" by the ruling and will need to "analyze the implications." It might seem like a small thing that search engines must delete results for individuals but as one lawyer told the Wall Street Journal: "This is going to have wide implications for the Internet, for the use of the Internet, for the Internet economy." Plus, the costs to Google, Microsoft (Bing) could be huge.

It's going to get complicated

This is the time to be glad you don't work for Google's legal department. (If you do, I'm sorry.) First off, while search companies aren't required to delete every request, the impetus will be on the search companies to argue that a piece of information should remain in search results when a request for removal is made. How that process will work is unclear and mind-boggling. Also, technically, this ruling is a directive from the European Court of Justice and there is no appeals process. That means that individual countries will make their own decisions whether to follow the "right to be forgotten" ruling.

What does this mean if you live outside the E.U.?

If you live outside the E.U. you probably won't be immediately affected by this ruling. In contrast to the E.U., the U.S., for example, has mostly taken a "hands-off approach to digital privacy." But at some point it could impact how we all use the Internet.

Bottom line

While this might be a win for individual privacy advocates, it's unclear what the ramifications will be for tech giants and digital censorship in the E.U. and possibly around the world.

Photo: Google screenshot

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— By on May 13, 2014, 10:26 AM PST

Tyler Falk

Contributing Editor

Tyler Falk is a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C. Previously, he was with Smart Growth America and Grist. He holds a degree from Goshen College. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure