Google Wins EU Court Backing in Spanish Internet Privacy Case

By Todd R. Weiss  |  Posted 2013-06-25
Online privacy

Google Wins EU Court Backing in Spanish Internet Privacy Case

Google should not have to delete information from its search results when old information is pulled up that is damaging to individuals who claim to be harmed by the content. That's the early opinion of a special advisor to the European Union's highest court, who has apparently sided with Google in a case involving a man in Spain who argued that Google searches about him provide information about an arrest years before that should be cleaned up to protect him.

"An expert opinion requested by the European Court of Justice, which is based in Luxembourg, recommended that Google not be forced to expunge all links to a 15-year-old legal notice published in a Spanish newspaper documenting a failure to pay back taxes," according to a June 25 report by The New York Times.

Instead, "the European Union's highest court on Tuesday was advised to strike down a Spanish regulator's demand that the search engine grant citizens a broad digital 'right to be forgotten,' including the ability to delete previous arrests and other negative publicity from Google's online search results."

The Spanish case arose in February, when Spain's data protection authority argued that Google should be required to remove damaging information about individuals from its search results. The original complainant pressed his case in a Spanish court, arguing that a Google search using his name had uncovered an announcement in a newspaper from several years earlier saying a property he owned was up for auction because of nonpayment of social security. A Spanish court upheld the man's argument and ordered Google to remove the information from its search results. The case was appealed by Google, sending it to its present legal venue.

The new recommendation, which sides with Google, came from the court's advocate general, Niilo Jaaskinen, who ruled in the case that "although Spanish data-protection law applied to Google, which operates a local advertising business targeting Spanish citizens, Google merely collated existing information on the Web and was not a 'controller' of information, and therefore not the legal entity that must comply with the law," the Times reported. "Wishing to eliminate embarrassing information is not reason enough to redact public records via Google, the court-appointed expert concluded."

Jaaskinen's ruling "backed the Internet search giant's position that it cannot erase legal content from the Internet, even if it is harmful to an individual," according to a report by Reuters. At the same time, he "rejected the view of many U.S. Internet firms that they are not bound by EU privacy law."

Jaaskinen's opinion, however, is not the final ruling on the matter, which is expected to come from the European Court of Justice by the end of this year, according to Reuters. The EU court's judges are "not bound by an advocate general's opinion, but follow such recommendations in the majority of cases," reported Reuters.

The issues at stake are complex, involving everything from information freedom to data integrity and protection to whether the Internet needs a police presence. The central questions also revolve around just who can be seen as a publisher of information on the Internet and whether that includes search engine companies like Google, which aggregate and search huge stores of data.

Google Wins EU Court Backing in Spanish Internet Privacy Case

The Spanish data case is one of several ongoing cases involving Google in Europe. In France, Google earlier this month was given 90 days to amend its policies about how the company deals with users' data or face large fines. Five other EU nations made similar threats to Google. The deadline was issued by France's National Commission for Computing and Civil Liberties (CNIL), which is France's data protection agency. In a statement, the CNIL told Google that it is taking the action because the company is not yet in compliance with French law.

The controversy over privacy and Google's user policies has been simmering for some time. In May 2012, French regulators accused Google of not being cooperative with investigators looking into privacy issues concerning the company and its practices there. The CNIL had sent Google a questionnaire about the new privacy policy in March 2012, but the agency complained that Google's answers were "often incomplete or approximate." A follow-up survey also left questions remaining.

Earlier this April, France and five other European nations announced that the slow pace of Google's progress on privacy issues caused them to plan their own steps to ensure improved data privacy for their citizens. That could mean hefty fines and deeper investigations into Google's actions on user privacy. A European task force being led by the CNIL has been waiting since October 2012 for satisfactory progress from Google on how the search giant would make privacy improvements to protect users of its online services.

In January 2012, Google announced major changes to its data privacy policies, which folded 60 of its 70 previously separate product privacy policies under one blanket policy and broke down the identity barriers between some of its services to accommodate its then-new Google+ social network, according to an earlier eWEEK report. Google's streamlining came as regulators continued to criticize Google, Facebook and other Web service providers for offering long-winded and legally gnarled privacy protocols. The Google privacy policy changes went into effect March 1, 2012.

In April, Google was hit with an $189,167 fine in Germany for collecting user data without fully disclosing the practice as Google Street View vehicles combed German streets collecting information for its maps from 2007 to 2010.

A similar case in the United States was resolved in March when a $7 million settlement was reached between Google and the U.S. government to end a probe into the Street View imaging program, which for three years collected personal information on users wirelessly as the Street View vehicles drove around taking photographs. The $7 million fine against Google was designed to resolve investigations that were under way by some 30 state attorneys general over the controversial Street View program.

Google's progress on developing clearer, better-known policies regarding how it will use any of the personal data belonging to its users has become a sore point with many governments around the world, which say that the search giant is not moving quickly enough to address such privacy concerns.

Google could potentially be fined about $1 billion for shortcomings in its data privacy policies in Europe.

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