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Want to disappear from the web? EU rules that Google must allow you to

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Stuart Thomas: Motorburn Editor
Stuart Thomas joined the Burn Media team in 2011 while finishing off an MA in South African Literature. Eager to prove his geek credentials, he allowed himself... More

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Ever wished you could make an unsavory incident in your past disappear from the web before it can come back to haunt you? Well, if you live anywhere within the European Union, you now can.

According to a landmark ruling by the Court of Justice of the European Union, Google and other search engines must respect your right to be forgotten.

The court’s ruling means that, under certain circumstances, online companies are now required to remove links, as requested by individuals. Those circumstances include the information in those linked pages being incorrect or acquired illegally.

At this point, it’s unclear exactly how the deletions will work. This in turn raises questions about how whether the new ruling can actually be enforced.

What it is not, however, is surprising. As Wired notes, European countries tend to have a far stricter approach to online privacy than many others. In Germany, for instance, courts have ruled that Google Street View and Facebook Likes violated people’s rights to privacy.

There are some serious concerns about the decision though, especially given that it also allows for people to ask for legally acquired information to be removed, even if it was accurate at the time it came to light.

Others meanwhile are concerned that the decision could have serious ramifications around censorship and access to information.

Index of Censorship says, “[The ruling] allows individuals to complain to search engines about information they do not like with no legal oversight. This is akin to marching into a library and forcing it to pulp books. Although the ruling is intended for private individuals it opens the door to anyone who wants to whitewash their personal history.”

Naturally, the company most likely to be affected by the ruling is not happy with it either. While the ruling is unlikely to harm Google directly as similar pro-privacy sentiment and, inevitably, cases start popping up in the US and other markets, it’s unlikely to help either.

“This is a disappointing ruling for search engines and online publishers in general,” Google said in an official statement. “We are very surprised that it differs so dramatically from the Advocate General’s opinion and the warnings and consequences that he spelled out. We now need to take time to analyse the implications.”

While the ruling could result in a flurry of cases, there are some pretty solid strategies the companies targeted by it could use to counter it. Perhaps the most obvious of these would be to remind anyone wanting to use the ruling that they could find themselves victims of the Streissand Effect, a phenomenon whereby an attempt to hide, remove, or censor a piece of information has the unintended consequence of publicizing the information more widely.