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A fine principle from the ECJ, but fiendish to implement

Those who find themselves with a 'bad name' on Google will rejoice

When a full name is tapped into Google’s search engine – out of personal curiosity, or for the purposes of professional scrutiny – the results that pop up can wield an oppressive power. In the case of Mr Mario Costeja González, a 1998 newspaper story about his debts – now long paid off – hung like a sword over the lawyer’s head, and wounded his reputation every time somebody Googled the name.

Millions more cases buttress that of the Spaniard: of names that, once searched for, bring up links to youthful indiscretions, family disputes or long-resolved legal troubles. This has been accepted as the status quo, simply a fact of life in the digital age. No longer. In a decision as unexpected as it is momentous, Europe’s highest court has ordered Google to bend to Mr González’s will, and filter out the distressing newspaper story from its search results. The court is asserting an individual’s “right to forget”, following a principle roughly analagous to points for minor offences that come off a driver’s licence after a certain period of time.

Those who find themselves with a “bad name” on Google will rejoice. Where previously takedown requests had to be based on laws broken, soon any one of Europe’s 500 million citizens will be able to petition the company on grounds of embarrassment. The principle is fine on a personal level, but un-nerving in public terms. When, for example, The Independent publishes a story, there is now the chance that, should the person in question believe it to be “irrelevant or no longer relevant”, they can later have it expunged from search engines – over-riding the story’s justification. Google must weigh up the extraordinarily tricky question of whether the plaintiff’s right to privacy exceeds the public’s right to know. That is quite the duty to ask of a private company, however dominant its role in the global flow of information.

Then there are the practical implications. The cost to Google of implementing this change will be immense, and the UK Government warns of a damaging effect that could be had on this country’s tech industry. That should not influence a discussion of the ruling’s moral merit; as private individuals we should be free from the fear of being forever dragged down by a Google search. Yet as the ruling comes into effect, we can only hope that the assertion of an individual’s right to resize their digital footprint does not scuff over too much of the web, and filter out information of legitimate public interest.