A landmark ruling by the Luxembourg-based European Court of Justice on 13th May 2014 has implications on privacy which may have an impact on search from now on.
The law works on the principle of precedent. If you have a case and there is a precedent then it's much easier to enforce it. If there is no precedent it can be very expensive to bring a case to prove it.
A Spanish citizen took Google to court demanding that it remove links dating back to 1998 to stories regarding his social security debts. Ironically his name appeared in many newspapers, which presumably made the action counterproductive if his aim was actually greater privacy.
A board of 13 judges found is his favour, using a 1995 EU data protection directive which states that an individual's right to privacy 'override, as a general rule, the interest of internet users'. This is often referred to as the 'right to be forgotten'.
The court's decision in this case is final and a precedent has been set. Individuals will be able to apply to Google and other search engines to have links removed on specific stories, even if those stories are true. This will not remove the stories from the internet, just from search results.
This right is extended to private individuals but not, according to the judgement, to politicians or those whose role in public life 'justifies a preponderant interest of the public in having access to the information'. The grey area here is the case of celebrities and whether there is a public interest in knowing information about them.
The ruling applies to search but does not, as yet, apply to social media including Twitter and Facebook. The effect will most likely be that search engines will censor themselves to avoid prosecution and will develop further as a source of knowledge in the natural search results and commercial results which are increasingly being pushed into paying for results.
So, instead of individuals bombarding search engines with requests the most likely impact is that search engines will adapt to take the ruling into account. They may, for example, limit references to individuals who are significant enough to have a Wikipedia entry.
Social media will be the place for gossip, something that Twitter is increasingly cornering the market in. Twitter is where, for example, criminals are often named. The problem for social media are those anonymous accounts where people can say what they like without taking responsibility for it. Twitter in particular is very quick to suspend accounts when that happens.
This is an important ruling which has privacy campaigners in a spin, because it's full of paradoxes. Emma Carr of an organisation called Big Brother Watch said: 'The principle that you have a right to be forgiven is a laudable one, but it was never intended to be a way for people to rewrite history.' Actually people are not rewriting history, they are putting a stop to their history being discovered.
The internet continues to evolve and many of the ways in which it is doing this are far from black and white.