An advocate general for the European Court of Justice (ECJ) [official website] released an advisory opinion [text] Tuesday finding that EU data protection law [text] does not require Google [corporate website] and other Internet search companies to withdraw sensitive data from search indices even when found to be harmful. In November 2009 a Spanish citizen found that a Google search of his name led to decades-old newspaper announcements listing his property on the market because of his failure to pay social security contributions. The man filed suit after Google refused to remove the information, alleging that the announcements could harm his reputation. After one of Spain's top courts upheld the complaint, the case was referred to the ECJ as a result of Google's appeal. The advocate general found Tuesday that, while Internet search companies must comply with EU data protection law, they cannot be held responsible for merely processing personal data which appears on webpages produced by third parties:
An internet search engine service provider, whose search engine locates information published or included on the internet by third parties, indexes it automatically, stores it temporarily and finally makes it available to internet users according to a particular order of preference, 'processes' personal data...when that information contains personal data [pursuant to EU data protection law...However, the internet search engine service provider cannot be considered as a 'controller' of the processing of such personal data...Requesting search engine service providers to suppress legitimate and legal information that has entered the public domain would entail an interference with the freedom of expression.According to media sources, the ECJ is expected to rule in accordance with the advisory opinion before the end of the year despite its freedom to independently assess the merits of the case.
Google has faced criticism for numerous privacy issues recently. Last week French and Spanish data protection groups threatened Google with fines [JURIST report] if the company does not change its privacy policies on collecting user data. Earlier this month a judge in the US District Court for the Northern District of California ruled [JURIST report] that Google must follow the FBI's warrantless requests for user information through national security letters. In April six European countries commenced legal action [JURIST report] against Google regarding its privacy policies. Also in April Google agreed to a $7 million settlement [JURIST report] for its collection of improper data during its Street View campaign. Last December an Italian appeals court overturned the conviction of three Google executives for violating Italian privacy laws [JURIST report] by posting a video on Google of a handicapped child being bullied. Last June a Swiss court ruled partially for Google [JURIST report] in a privacy suit involving its Street View service.