Google Wins EU Court Backing in Spanish Internet Privacy Case

Google shouldn't have to clean up embarrassing or upsetting old information about people online as part of its searches, an EU authority ruled.

Online privacy

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.