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In its ruling, the European Court said people may address requests directly to the operator of the search engine "which must then duly examine its merits."
The right is not absolute, as search engines must weigh "the legitimate interest of Internet users potentially interested in having access to that information" against the right to privacy and protection of personal data. When an agreement can't be reached, the Luxembourg-based court said the matter can be referred to a local judge or regulator.
Debates over the 'right to be forgotten' -- to have negative information erased after a period of time -- have surfaced across the world as tech users struggle to reconcile the forgive-and-forget nature of human relations with the unforgiving permanence of the electronic record.
Though the idea of such a right has generally been well-received in Europe, many in the U.S. have critiqued it as a disguised form of censorship that could allow convicts to delete references to past crimes or politicians to airbrush their records.
Alejandro Tourino, a Spanish lawyer who specializes in mass media issues, said the ruling was a first of its kind and "quite a blow for Google."
"This serves as a basis for all members of the European Union, it is (a) most important ruling and the first time European authorities have ruled on the 'right to be forgotten,'" said Tourino, who has worked for The Associated Press in several legal cases and is the author of "The Right to be Forgotten and Privacy on the Internet."
Google spokesman Al Verney said Tuesday's ruling was "disappointing ... for search engines and online publishers in general." The company, he said, will "now need to take time to analyze the implications."
Some limited forms of a "right to be forgotten" exist in the U.S. and elsewhere -- including in relation to crimes committed by minors or bankruptcy regulations, both of which usually require that records be expunged in some way.
Viviane Reding, the EU's top justice official, said in a Facebook posting that the ruling confirmed that "data belongs to the individual" and that unless there is a good reason to retain data, "an individual should be empowered by law to request erasure."
However, Javier Ruiz, Policy Director at Open Rights Group, cautioned that authorities have to be careful in how they move forward. (continued...)
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