Google is to do battle with Spain's data protection authority
in Europe's highest court in a landmark case with
global implications which poses one of the thorniest
questions of the Internet age: When is information really
The issue before the European Court of Justice has been
boiled down to this poser: If a person fails to pay social
security contributions and their house is auctioned off as a
result, do they have the right to ask Google to delete such
damaging information from search results?
Behind that lies complex arguments over freedom of
information, the right to protect data, what it means to be a
publisher and who ultimately polices the web.
Lawyers for Google will argue the search engine company
should not have to erase lawful content which it did not
create from its massive search index.
Spanish officials will argue that Google should delete
information from its index where an individual's privacy is
Tuesday's hearing in Luxembourg opens arguments but it could
be nine months to a year before a ruling is handed down.
It is based on a complaint made by a Spanish man who made a
Google search using his name and uncovered an announcement in
a newspaper from several years earlier saying a property he
owned was up for auction because of non-payment of social
One of Spain's top courts, the Audiencia Nacional, upheld his
complaint and ruled Google should delete the information from
its results. The case was referred to the Court of Justice in
March last year after Google challenged the decision.
Supporters say that if Google is asked to delete such
information it will create a slippery slope leading to all
sorts of data being deleted for spurious reasons, and it
would essentially make Google the responsible party.
CONTROLLER OR HOST?
The European court will try to determine if Google can be
considered the "controller" or just a host of information. It
will also assess whether a search engine run by a company
based in California such as Google can be subject to EU
Spain's data regulator has said EU judges must consider if EU
citizens have to go to U.S. courts to exercise their privacy
rights and whether Google "is responsible for the damage the
diffusion of personal information can cause for citizens".
The hearing will also test a draft European law that aims to
strengthen citizens' privacy. The rules proposed by the
European Commission in 2012 and being debated by the European
Parliament would give people "the right to be forgotten" -
that is, the right to have personal data deleted, in
particular from the web.
The proposal has sparked sharp criticism from industry
experts who say Internet content could be manipulated at the
expense of freedom of speech if such a principle were to be
enshrined in European law.
In a blog, Google's global privacy counsel, Peter Fleischer,
said such a right created false expectations.
"I regularly hear requests from people to 'remove all
references to me, Mrs. X, from the Internet'," Fleischer
said, adding that he was expressing his own views, not the
"No law can or should provide such a right," he said.
Spain referred the case to the EU's highest court to clarify
how the EU draft law should be applied, particularly in
relation to Google. It said the outcome of the hearing would
be relevant not only in Spain but in all EU countries.
Spain's data protection agency said almost 200 verdicts in
similar cases had been challenged in the Audiencia Nacional.