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Big Questions Now That Europeans Can Edit Google Search Results

Attendees line up to enter the Google I/O developers conference in San Francisco in May 2013.
Justin Sullivan
Getty Images
Attendees line up to enter the Google I/O developers conference in San Francisco in May 2013.

In case you missed it, Europe's highest court has set a new precedent: Individuals in 28 European countries can now request the removal of search results they consider harmful. Is this ruling a big win for the individual? Or does this break the Internet?

Companies like Google already routinely field takedown requests for material that violates defamation or copyright, but this is different. The unappealable ruling Tuesday by the European Court of Justice requires search engines to consider takedown requests that are merely embarrassing or harmful.

"Data belongs to the individual, not to the company," said EU Commissioner Viviane Reding, who hailed the ruling. "Unless there is a good reason to retain this data, an individual should be empowered — by law — to request erasure of this data."

While the original information sources won't disappear, and offline records do exist, this decision does remove the ease of finding information with just a few clicks.

"This is a disappointing ruling for search engines and online publishers in general," Google said in a statement. The company is still combing through all the potential questions that stem from it. A few things we're wondering:

How will this requirement work in practice?

What is the cost of enforcing this ruling? How will smaller non-Googles be affected by trying to comply with a flurry of individual takedown requests?

How will Google and other search engines taking down certain search results in the EU affect the availability of information in countries outside the EU?

What would stop a researcher in Europe from simply connecting to a proxy server in the United States that would search an uncensored version of the Internet?

Google and its ilk consider themselves intermediaries for information, not publishers. But should they be considered "controllers" of personal data, as the court said?

Will Google and other Internet companies react by creating a takedown notice process?

Just some things we're chewing on for now. Let us know what you want to know, and we'll take the questions to legal experts and to the Google team to find out what's next.

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Elise Hu is a host-at-large based at NPR West in Culver City, Calif. Previously, she explored the future with her video series, Future You with Elise Hu, and served as the founding bureau chief and International Correspondent for NPR's Seoul office. She was based in Seoul for nearly four years, responsible for the network's coverage of both Koreas and Japan, and filed from a dozen countries across Asia.