Internet companies can be made to remove irrelevant or excessive personal information from search engine results, Europe's top court ruled today, in a case pitting privacy campaigners against Google.
The Court of Justice of the European Union (ECJ) upheld the complaint of a Spanish man who objected to the fact that Google searches on his name threw up links to a 1998 newspaper article about the repossession of his home.
The case highlighted the struggle in cyberspace between free speech advocates and supporters of privacy rights who say people should have the "right to be forgotten" - meaning they should be able to remove their digital traces from the internet.
It creates technical challenges as well as potential extra costs for companies like Google and Facebook.
Google can be required to remove data that is "inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant, or excessive in relation to the purposes for which they were processed and in the light of the time that has elapsed," judges at the Luxembourg-based court said.
The ECJ said the rights of people whose privacy has been infringed outweighed the general public interest.
Google said it was disappointed with the ruling, which contradicted a non-binding opinion from the ECJ's court adviser last year that said deleting sensitive information from search results would interfere with freedom of expression.
"We are very surprised that it differs so dramatically from the Advocate General's opinion and the warnings and consequences that he spelled out. We now need to take time to analyse the implications," Google spokesman Al Verney said.
The European Commission proposed in 2012 that people should have the "right to be forgotten" on the internet. This was watered down by the European Parliament last year in favour of a "right to erasure" of specific information.
The proposal needs the blessing of the 28 European Union governments before it can become law. Google, Facebook and other internet companies have lobbied against such plans, worried about the extra costs.
European Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding said the court ruling vindicated EU efforts to toughen up privacy rules.
"Companies can no longer hide behind their servers being based in California or anywhere else in the world," she said.
Google suffered a previous privacy setback earlier this year when a German court ordered it to block search results in Germany linked to photos of a sex party involving former Formula One motor racing boss Max Mosley.