Who will write the history?

“History will be kind to me,” Sir Winston Churchill once said, “because I intend to write it.” And now, as a result of a landmark ruling by the Court of Justice of the European Unionthat has effectively redefined digital privacy, history might be kinder to all manner of European citizens.

The European Court has ruled that internet companies such as Google must remove sensitive personal information from search results if there is a clear breach of privacy law, including information published by third parties. Its decision follows the request of a Spanish national that Google stop linking to a 16 year old announcement of the forced sale of his house because of debts he has long since paid off.

The argument in favour of this ruling is that an individual’s previous experiences should not have to follow them around for their rest of their lives – and in this particular instance, it appears understandable that the individual pursuing the legal case would not want his name forever associated with financial difficulties more than a decade old, and which could reasonably be found by anyone looking into his background, such as a potential employer.

The ruling states that companies such as Google should remove at request information that is “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant,” and experts have already questioned how the judgement can be practically implemented and enforced. But this should not devalue its significance.

Unsurprisingly privacy campaigners have reacted gleefully to the news; free speech activists have reacted with horror – and for all the potential problems there might be with implementing this judgement, it must not be allowed to become a form of censorship of the internet or a tool for individuals to ‘change history’ by seeking the removal or concealment of content they simply do not like.

This debate will run and run, but will not run out of fervour, not least because there is a proposal currently working its way through the European institutions that would see a revision of EU privacy law and potentially the adoption of  a ‘right to be forgotten’. It is a battle over information itself – and who will get to write history.