Europe's highest court ruled Tuesday that people have the "right to be forgotten" and can ask Google to remove some sensitive information from Internet search results.
The judgment was handed down by the Luxembourg-based Court of Justice of the European Union in a development that highlights ongoing battles between supporters of privacy rights and those who advocate for freedom of expression.
The court ruled that Google, if asked to do so, must amend links to information shown to be outdated or information deemed to be irrelevant.
"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," the judges said in their ruling.
"An Internet search engine operator is responsible for the processing that it carries out of personal data which appear on web pages published by third parties," the judges added.
The case followed complaints from a man in Spain who argued that when Google's search results revealed details about an auction of his repossessed home that infringed on his privacy rights.
In reaction to the ruling, Google said: "This is a disappointing ruling for search engines and online publishers in general. We now need to take time to analyze the implications."
The technology firm had argued that it doesn't control personal data, it just offers links to information already freely and legally available on the internet.
Viviane Reding, the EU's justice commissioner, who is on leave from her post while she campaigns for re-election to the European Parliament, said: "Today's court judgment is a clear victory for the protection of personal data of Europeans." The comments were posted on Reding's Facebook page. "Companies can no longer hide behind their servers being based in California or anywhere else," she wrote.
Ruth Collard, an expert on media law at London-based legal firm Carter Ruck, said: "There are fundamental issues involved regarding who on the Internet makes decisions about what content can be seen and how long for."
Collard added: "The ruling might have particular relevance to young people, who find that something embarrassing posted in their school or student days has continuing repercussions as they grow older, perhaps affecting the view potential employers take of them."
She said that it was unclear how the ruling might affect Google's U.S. business, given its U.S. residence.
Google is facing a number of investigations around the world related to privacy issues. The Mountain View, Calif.-based, firm was fined $1.38 million in Italy after its Street View program took photographs of people without their knowledge. It has also collected recent fines in Spain and Italy over its use of personal data.
"It is yet another hurdle for technology companies, such as search engines, to overcome when they provide services on EU territory," said Patrick van Eecke, partner at law firm DLA Piper.