The proliferation of image hosting sites like Facebook, Instagram and Tumblr have made the Internet an archive of embarrassing memories for many, and for subjects of compromising images and content, the path to complete removal has been nearly impossible. With images readily available via search engines, something as harmless as a Google search could result in reputational apocalypse (unless you’re fortunate enough to share a name with…say a famous golfer).

However, in a landmark privacy decision, the European Union has ruled that Google must honor an individual’s “right to be forgotten,” requiring the company to help bury links to certain personally sensitive information when requested.

The word from EU courts was the result of 2010 lawsuit against Google filed by a Spanish man seeking to have articles from 1998 about his financial woes removed from Google’s search results. Costeja González argued that under the EU’s Data Protection Directive, the information must be destroyed and the court ultimately agreed with him.

Under the Data Protection Directive, Europe requires that information over a certain age be destroyed, and also allows citizens to demand the erasure of information that is incomplete or inaccurate.

Higher privacy standards are common in the EU, likely as a side effect of rampant privacy violation that led to atrocities like the Holocaust during World War II. But while the collective psyche of Europe may push to give citizens more rights to manage their personal information, technological realties make the manifestation of that effort difficult.

Under the ruling, citizens have the right to request that information be removed from Google. However, it could not only be difficult for the search engine provider to identify and remove all instances of a particular piece of content on the Internet, but determining to what extent items are incomplete or inaccurate could also pose a challenge. Given the volume of compromising information available online, Google may have a problem keeping up with EU citizen wishes. Reports indicated those removal requests are already being submitted.


For more on EU privacy laws, check out these stories:


International privacy laws still pose challenges for the discovery process

UK organization outlines online security measures

Privacy, data and different jurisdictions: How legal approaches differ between the U.S. and EU