Google may now be forced to remove personal information from its search results after the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) stated that EU citizens have a 'right to be forgotten'.

The matter was initiated by Spanish national Mario Costeja González who made a complaint to the Spanish Data Protection Agency (AEPD) against the publishers of the daily newspaper La Vanguardia, Google Spain and Google Inc.  

The case centred on the fact that if someone were to search for Mr González's name on Google, the results would contain links to pages of La Vanguardia which stated that Mr González's house was to be publically auctioned as he had failed to pay his taxes. The pages dated back to 1998. He contended, that since the matter had since been fully resolved, the articles were now irrelevant.

Mr González argued not only that La Vanguardia's website should be altered to conceal his personal data but also that Google should modify its results.  Google argued that since it does not control the data, and only offers links to information freely available on the internet, its activities do not fall within the remit of the EU Data Protection Directive[1].

The AEPD rejected the complaint against La Vanguardia, stating that the information concerned had been lawfully published.  Controversially, the complaint against Google Spain and Google Inc was upheld.  Google Spain and Google Inc brought a case before the Spanish High Court arguing that the ruling of the AEPD should be annulled, and the Spanish High Court then referred the case to the CJEU.

The CJEU concluded that Google's activities as a search engine operator do amount to both processing and controlling personal data under the EU Data Protection Directive, regardless of the fact that they are carried out without distinction.  The Court declared that search engine operators will, in certain circumstances, be obliged to remove links to webpages that contain information relating to a person following a search made on the basis of that person’s name.  However, the Court went on to state that in deciding whether a link should be removed a fair balance should be sought between the data subject’s right to protection of personal data and the legitimate interest of internet users.  In this instance, and having regard to that balance, the Court found Mr González had established 'a right that that information should no longer be linked to his name' and that the Google result should be removed.

The ruling undoubtedly has far-reaching implications, with search engines such as Bing and Yahoo also likely to be affected. This is only one of more than 180 similar cases in Spain where the claimants are all seeking removal of links to pages containing their personal data.  Given the anticipated surge in requests to have links removed in light of the ruling, it is believed that Google and its competitors will be forced to adopt a new link-removal request system, not dissimilar to the copyright  infringement system currently operated by Google-owned YouTube.