Europe's top court has ruled that internet search giant Google will have to remove when required sensitive data produced by its ubiquitous search engine, in a landmark ruling on privacy rights.
In a case pitting privacy campaigners against Google, the Court of Justice of the European Union (ECJ) on Tuesday said Google must listen and sometimes comply when individuals request the removal of links to newspaper articles or websites containing their personal information.
The ruling needs the approval of the 28 European Union governments before it can become law.
The case was brought by a Spanish man who objected to Google searches on his name throwing up links to a 1998 newspaper article about the repossession of his home.
If search engines are forced to remove links to legitimate content that is already in the public domain but not the content itself, it could lead to online censorship
The case highlighted the struggle between free speech advocates and supporters of privacy rights who say people should have the "right to be forgotten" and that they should be able to remove their digital traces from the internet.
Google said it was disappointed with the ruling, which contradicted a non-binding opinion from the ECJ's court adviser last year that said deleting sensitive information from search results would interfere with freedom of expression.
The advisory judgment is expected to impact all search engines, including Yahoo and Microsoft's Bing, and raises both technical challenges and potential extra costs.
Digital rights groups had mixed reactions to the court's decision.
The EU justice commissioner, Viviane Reding, welcomed the court's decision saying it vindicated EU efforts to toughen up privacy rules.
"Companies can no longer hide behind their servers being based in California or anywhere else in the world," she said on her Facebook page, calling the judgment a "strong tailwind" for data protection reform.
In a statement sent to the Reuters news agency, Javier Ruiz, policy director at Open Rights Group, said the decision had major implications that could lead to online censorship.
"We need to take into account individuals' right to privacy but if search engines are forced to remove links to legitimate content that is already in the public domain but not the content itself, it could lead to online censorship."
"This case has major implications for all kind of Internet intermediaries, not just search engines," Ruiz said.