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Google Must Delete Personal Data When Asked, European Court Says

People have the right to have data about them deleted from online databases, the European Court of Justice says, in a ruling issued against Google on Tuesday. The search company had fought a Spanish court's order to remove links to online newspaper articles in a case that began in 2011.

"A Spanish man brought this case, arguing that Google's search results infringed on his privacy," NPR's Ari Shapiro reports for our Newscast unit. "A search of his name brought up an auction notice of his repossessed home from 16 years ago."

The plaintiff, Mario Costeja González, said the matter "had been resolved and should no longer be linked to him whenever his name was searched on Google," The Guardian reports.

Siding with González, the European court gave a victory to privacy advocates who say people should be allowed to erase their digital footprint — something they call the "right to be forgotten."

"Google argues that this amounts to censorship," Ari says. "The company says search engines don't control data — they just link to information that's already freely available online."

The court didn't agree, explicitly stating in a news release announcing the ruling that 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."

More specifically, the court said people could request the removal of data related to them that seem to be "inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant, or excessive in relation to the purposes for which they were processed."

The court said Google and other search engines are "searching automatically, constantly and systematically for information," which they collect, organize and disclose to Internet users.

In contrast, the court noted that González's request against the Spanish newspaper that originally published a notice about the repossession was found to have no merit, because the information was correct at the time of publication.

González's case targeted both the newspaper and Google. After Google suffered a loss in a Spanish court, it appealed to Spain's highest court, which then referred the case to the Court of Justice, whose rulings are binding throughout the European Union.

The court said Tuesday that an interference with personal rights "cannot ... be justified by merely the economic interest which the operator of the engine has in the data processing."

Reporting on reactions to the court's ruling, the BBC says Google called it "disappointing," while EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding on her Facebook page touted the decision as a "clear victory for the protection of personal data of Europeans."

Google has been forced to change some of its practices in Europe before, including last April, when the search company agreed to "modify the way it displays search results in Europe as part of a deal to end a probe by the EU's antitrust body," as The Two-Way reported.

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.