Europe's highest court said Tuesday that Google must give individuals the right to hide certain information about themselves, in a potentially far-reaching legal decision that raises questions about privacy rights, censorship and the way Internet services are delivered around the world.

The ruling was praised by some privacy advocates. But while it has no immediate effect in the United States, critics warned it could disrupt -- or at least bog down -- online services and potentially interfere with the ability of all Internet users to search for information.

"This ruling opens the door to large-scale private censorship in Europe," warned a spokesman for the Computer and Communications Industry Association, which represents Google and other leading online companies. "This will likely affect all companies providing links on the Internet."

A leading U.S. privacy watchdog, however, said the court's action made Tuesday "a good day for the right to privacy." Marc Rotenberg of the Electronic Privacy Information Center added, "I know a bunch of people in the valley are probably pulling their hair out right now, but they should have seen this coming."

Experts said the ruling is the latest of several moves by European authorities to stake out a stronger right of individual privacy than usually afforded by U.S. law. Officials of the European Union, which includes more than 500 million people, are mulling legislation that would go even further than the court in codifying what some call "the right to be forgotten," or to avoid being dogged by outdated, derogatory information.


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For some Europeans, those concerns are underscored by recent revelations about U.S. and British government efforts to collect Internet users' data. But critics warn that such legislation threatens the right of free speech, since it could lead to censorship by politicians, business leaders or other individuals who want to scrub truthful information from their past.

"The so-called 'right to be forgotten' sounds great, but if you did something stupid and someone writes about it, why do you later have the right to have it erased as if it never happened?" asked Brian Wesolowski of the Center for Democracy and Technology, a Washington-based policy group.

Tuesday's ruling stems from a case involving a Spanish lawyer, Mario Costeja, who searched for his own name on Google and found links to a 1998 legal notice in a Spanish newspaper concerning the sale of his property to settle an unpaid debt.

Costeja complained to Spain's privacy agency in 2009, arguing the links should be removed because the debt was long since repaid. Spanish authorities agreed, but Google challenged the order in court, saying it shouldn't be required to censor material that was published legally by the Spanish news site. Spain's National Court then sought guidance from the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg.

The Court of Justice ruled Google and other search engine operators must consider requests like Costeja's and weigh individual privacy rights against any legitimate public interest in the information. The court also said users who aren't satisfied with the outcome may turn to local authorities for a resolution.

Google may be obliged to remove links to Web pages even when the original publication is legal, the court said, while sending the case back to Spain for final determination.

"It's a great relief," Costeja told The Associated Press. "If Google was great before, it's perfect now, because there are game rules to go by."

But Google said the ruling was "disappointing" for "search engines and online publishers in general." The Mountain View company, which operates the leading search engine here and in Europe, has said it shouldn't be held responsible for material on other sites simply because it turns up in a Google search.

The European court, however, put the responsibility on search engines after concluding it may be too difficult for users to negotiate with individual websites and publishers.

A spokesman said Google needs time to analyze the ruling's implications. Yahoo said it's also reviewing the decision, while adding: "Since our founding almost 20 years ago, we've supported an open and free Internet, not one shaded by censorship." Microsoft declined to comment Tuesday.

Several critics echoed Emma Llanso, an attorney at the Center for Democracy and Technology, who called it "an implementation nightmare" for Internet companies. She predicted companies will be flooded with requests, to which they may respond by taking down offending links to avoid endless legal challenges. As a result, she said, even U.S. users might not be shown certain links.

Others noted that Google and other Internet companies already operate "localized" websites in different countries, sometimes tailored to local rules. Google at one time provided censored results on its China-based site, under Chinese law, although it later closed that site. So it's not impossible for Google to show one set of results in Europe and another in the United States.

But in Europe, warned Santa Clara University law professor Eric Goldman, "search engines will be deluged by take-down requests, each of which will require costly individualized determinations." A slew of take-downs, he added, could lead many Europeans to view their country-specific sites as "less credible."

European supporters of the ruling, however, called it a positive move to bring international companies into compliance with European consumer protection rules.

"Today's court judgement is a clear victory for the protection of personal data of Europeans," Viviane Reding, the European Union's Justice Commissioner, said on her Facebook page.

Contact Brandon Bailey at 408-920-5022 or follow him at Twitter.com/BrandonBailey; contact Patrick May at 408-920-5689 or follow him at Twitter.com/patmaymerc.