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Internet companies can be made to remove irrelevant or excessive personal information from search engine results, Europe's top court ruled on Tuesday in a case pitting privacy campaigners against Google.
The Court of Justice of the European Union (ECJ) upheld the complaint of a Spanish man who objected to the fact that Google searches on his name threw up links to a 1998 newspaper article about the repossession of his home.
The case highlighted the struggle in cyberspace between free speech advocates and supporters of privacy rights who say people should have the "right to be forgotten" - meaning that they should be able to remove their digital traces from the Internet.
It creates both technical challenges and potential extra costs for companies like Google, the world's no.1 search engine, and Facebook.
Google can be required to remove data that are "inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant, or excessive in relation to the purposes for which they were processed and in the light of the time that has elapsed," said judges at the Luxembourg-based court. The ECJ said the rights of people whose privacy has been infringed outweighed the general public interest.
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.
"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," said Google spokesman Al Verney.
The European Commission proposed in 2012 that people should have the "right to be forgotten" on the Internet. This was watered down by the European Parliament last year in favour of a "right to erasure" of specific information.
The proposal needs the blessing of the 28 European Union governments before it can become law. Google, Facebook and other Internet companies have lobbied against such plans, worried about the extra costs.
The issues of privacy and data protection in Europe have become all the more sensitive since a former U.S. intelligence contractor, Edward Snowden, leaked details last year of U.S. surveillance programmes for monitoring vast quantities of emails and phone records worldwide.
Tuesday's court ruling will likely benefit ordinary people but not public figures, said Larry Cohen, a partner at law firm Latham & Watkins.
"The ruling will help certain people hide their past, making it