NEW YORK — The highest European court on Tuesday gave individuals the right to influence what can be learned about them through Web searches, rejecting long-established practices about the free flow of information on the Internet.
Before, people who did not like what was being said about them online needed to go the original source of the information and persuade the website to delete it. That was arduous and often impossible. But the European court said the middleman — the search engine — could be asked to simply delete the links.
In some ways, the court is trying to erase the last 25 years, when people learned to routinely Google every potential suitor, partner, or friend.
“It could result in giving people a line-item veto over results on searches about themselves,” said Jonathan Zittrain, a professor at Harvard Law School. “Some will see this as corrupting. Others will see it as purifying.”
He is siding with the former group, warning that Google research results could become equivalent to About.Me, which allows people to set up links to material about them.
Others argue that search was never neutral and that the ruling, by the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg, is in tune with how people want to live.
“More and more Internet users want a little of the ephemerality and the forgetfulness of the pre-digital days,” said Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, professor of Internet governance at the Oxford Internet Institute. “They don’t want their drunken pictures to follow them the next 30 years.”
The court said data privacy officials in European countries would have the final say on whether a link should be removed but gave no objective standard beyond saying that search links should be “relevant.” It also said Google should err on the side of removing links when requested.
The burden of fulfilling the court’s order will fall largely on Google, which is by far the dominant search engine in Europe.
The decision stunned Google and just about everyone else. Google said it would need time to study the decision, which is a final judgment and cannot be appealed.
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.