Europe’s top court has imposed new geographic limits on the “right to be forgotten,” saying that in most cases it should apply only within the European Union.
The European Court of Justice decision announced Tuesday is a significant victory for Google (GOOGL), which had argued for years that it should not be made to scrub search results outside EU borders.
The ruling curtails a right to be forgotten established by the same court in 2014, which allows EU citizens to request that links containing personal information about them be removed from search results.
France’s privacy regulator had sought to extend the right beyond EU borders, a position opposed by media outlets, free speech advocates and tech companies such as Google, which tend to resist censorship.
The court acknowledged Tuesday that other countries do not recognize the right to be forgotten, adding that protection of personal data is not an absolute right and must be balanced against other freedoms.
“Since 2014, we’ve worked hard to implement the right to be forgotten in Europe, and to strike a sensible balance between people’s rights of access to information and privacy,” said Peter Fleischer, a lawyer at Google.
“It’s good to see that the court agreed with our arguments,” he added.
The right to be forgotten was never absolute. According to the court’s 2014 ruling, search engines should consider factors including whether information is inaccurate, excessive or in the public interest when evaluating removal requests.
Google records show that it has since agreed to remove nearly 1.3 million URLs, representing 45% of all requests, from its search results.
Tuesday’s ruling puts additional requirements on Google. According to the court, it must now put in place measures that “seriously discourage” EU internet users from accessing links via non-EU versions of Google.
The court also left the door open for regulators in EU countries to order a search engine to remove content across all versions of its website in exceptional cases. But Adam Chapman, a partner at London law firm Kingsley Napley, said it would be difficult to do this in practice without compromising the “primacy, unity and effectiveness of EU law”.
Danny O’Brien, international director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit, previously told CNN that he was “uncomfortable” with Google deciding what content should stay online and what shouldn’t.
The right to be forgotten should be an “even battle” that takes place in court and is not upheld “on the fact that you filled in a form on Google’s website,” he said.