In an advisory judgment stemming from a Spanish case, The Court of Justice of the European Union said Google and other search engines do have control of individuals' private information, given that they sometimes compile and present links to it in a systematic way.
The court found that under European law, individuals have a right to control their private data, especially if they are not public figures. If they want irrelevant or wrong personal information about themselves "forgotten" from search engine results, they have the right to request it - even if the information was legally published.
People "may address such a request directly to the operator of the search engine ... which must then duly examine its merits," the ruling said.
Whether or not the request should be granted will depend "on the nature of the information in question and its sensitivity for the data subject's private life and on the interest of the public in having that information, an interest which may vary," it said.
Google must remove links to pages containing the information from results "unless there are particular reasons, such as the role played by the data subject in public life, justifying a preponderant interest of the public in having access to the information when such a search is made," the court said.
Google could not immediately be reached for comment.
It had argued that it doesn't control personal data, it just offers links to information already freely and legally available on the Internet. It had also argued that it should not be forced to play the role of censor, especially when it offers links to information that was legally published.
The case was referred to the European court by Spain's appeal court, the Audiencia Nacional, which has fielded 200 such complaints.
The leading case was from a Spaniard named Mario Costeja who said that when his name was Googled it threw up references to an advertisement for a property auction related to an unpaid Social Welfare debt. Costeja and the agency argued that the debt had long been settled and that the reference should be removed.
The ad had originally appeared in Spanish newspaper and was tracked by Google's robots when the newspaper digitalized its archive.