On Tuesday the European Court of Justice, the European Union’s highest court, ruled that individuals have a right to request Google (GOOGL) and other search engines to take down links about themselves, in certain cases, when that information could be deemed to infringe on their right to privacy, because the information is old or irrelevant. The court left it to EU national courts and regulators to set the parameters by which these requests can be made.
So far, the “right to be forgotten” is more of an issue in Europe than it is in the U.S., but this ruling may change that. The ruling marks the latest battle between privacy-rights advocates and much of the technology industry.
The technology industry’s argument revolves around freedom of speech, which is enshrined specifically in the U.S. Constitution as its First Amendment. Across the Atlantic, however, privacy rights activists and many European officials have rallied around a competing right to be forgotten, borne out of a concept of French law, where it is known as “le droit à l’oubli.” The concept is rooted in the basic idea that everyone deserves a fresh start. A convicted criminal, once he or she serves their sentence and after a fair amount of time passes, should be able to keep past misdeeds private. In the case of the Google ruling, the European court determined that individuals have the right to ask search engines to delete links to items in searches that they view as infringing on this sense of privacy.
In Italy, the “right to be forgotten” has long been enshrined as part of the country’s constitutional right to personal identity. It also has been written into the EU’s current data protection laws, passed in 1995. Tuesday’s ruling was essentially a high-court endorsement of the concept. The court sided heavily in favor of privacy, deciding that the Internet today is so influential that it can shape lives and opinions in such a way that a person shouldn’t be a prisoner to his or her past.