Google can be forced to remove information from search results in Europe after a ruling in the European Union Court of Justice prioritized privacy rights over publishing freedom.
In a ruling on Tuesday, the Luxembourg-based court found in favor of a Spanish man, who had complained that search results including an auction notice on his home, repossessed 16 years ago to pay off a tax bill, infringed his privacy.
Google argued that it doesn't control data and shouldn't be responsible for information that is published and freely available around the web, even though last year it was forced to block sexual images of Max Mosley, the former president of Formula One racing, after a ruling in France.
The judges disagreed with Google's argument, claiming that Google is a "controller" of data and that the "activity of a search engine is additional to that of publishers of websites and is liable to affect significantly the fundamental rights to privacy and to the protection of personal data."
Search engines can't trump those personal rights "merely" for "the economic interest which the operator of the engine has in the data processing," the court said.
"This is a disappointing ruling for search engines and online publishers in general," Google said in a statement.
"We now need to take time to analyze the implications," it added.
Any individual in the European Union can now ask to have a link to a story deleted in Google search results if the information is "inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant, or excessive in relation to the purpose for which [it was] processed and in the light of the time that has elapsed." There will be exceptions, however, for people in public life.
The ruling could mean that Google is inundated with demands for the removal of links from searches, and will inevitably affect rivals including Yahoo and Microsoft. Search engines will only be required to remove links -- the information will still exist on the web.
Separately, Europe's data protection directive, which was adopted in 1995, is currently being revised, and the "right to be forgotten" is a proposed part of the overhaul, which is expected to be finalized by the end of the year.
The EU justice commissioner, Viviane Reding, who is in charge of reviewing the directive, showed which side she is on with a post on her Facebook page about the court's ruling. She called it, "A clear victory for the protection of personal data of Europeans" and added, "The ruling confirms the need to bring today's data protection rules from the 'digital stone age' into today's modern computing world."
Search ad spending in Western Europe is estimated to reach $15.88 billion in 2014, making up 43.7% of total digital ad spend in the region, according to eMarketer.