Times have changed.
Mario Costeja Gonzalez, a Spanish citizen, didn't like what he found when he surfed his name on Google. His complaint to Spanish authorities over displaying search results related to an auction in 1998 of his repossessed home ended up dragging Google to the European Court of Justice.
Gonzalez claimed the repossession matter had been legally settled and any public reference impinged upon his privacy. This week the court agreed.
The court's finding has rekindled the debate on whether in today's information age individuals have the "right to be forgotten," and what that means for Google.
Under the order Google must now remove the offending results permanently from its servers. The court calling the information in question "inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant or excessive...in the light of the time that had elapsed."
By characterizing Google as a controller of data rather than a reporter of data -- such as a newspaper -- the court has passed a heavy burden of responsibility onto the search giant. There are 200 similar "right to be forgotten" cases pending in Spain alone, so Google execs could soon be swamped by such requests.
Google reacted strongly to the judgement. Calling it "disappointing" and claiming to be "surprised" by the court's interpretation of privacy, the company is expected to circle the wagons and mount a vigorous campaign to oppose this becoming a general principle.
It will get much needed support from certain quarters including the UK's ruling establishment, who are bucking the "right to be forgotten" wave. The UK Justice Secretary Chris Grayling has been leading efforts to opt-out of article 17 of the European General Data Protection Regulation, which governs the "right to be forgotten."
It's the commercial cost imposed on companies like Google to stay compliant with such requests that is motivating the UK response, not so much a concern for freedom of information. Data-centric businesses are large contributors to national economies, both through taxes and job creation, and any move that would impose additional costs on their operations is sure to find a friendly ear in governments focusing on economic recovery.
Even in purely legal terms the court's decision has divided experts. No less than the Advocate General of the European Court, Niilo Jaaskinen, had provided legal opinion to the court that was against such information about individuals being deleted.
In the United States, reaction to the decision has also been largely pro-Google. While privacy is a major concern after Edward Snowden's NSA revelations, the European decision for many smacks of Internet censorship. Thus the understandable aversion to entertaining any such practices.
However, even in the U.S, the issue of precisely what degree of control an individual has over his or her name and associated aspects -- such as images or comments -- is far from clearly delineated. The courts have been busy trying to adjudicate on a case-by-case basis.
This issue is not going away anytime soon.
At the time of publication, the author held no positions in any of the stocks mentioned.
This article represents the opinion of a contributor and not necessarily that of TheStreet or its editorial staff
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