Google Cites Censorship Risk in EU Data Control Lawsuit

Google Inc. shouldn’t have to remove content from its search engine that was lawfully published elsewhere, the company argued in a case at the European Union’s top court that will set boundaries between freedom of expression and data-protection rights.

The operator of the world’s largest search engine isn’t a data “controller,” it is “a mere intermediary in terms of the data which it indexes,” Google lawyer Francisco Enrique Gonzalez-Diaz told a panel of 15 judges at the EU Court of Justice hearing today. Direct requests for personal information to be removed from a search engine -- even if it was put online by a newspaper -- would be “a fundamental shift of responsibility from the publisher to the search engine” and “would amount to censorship.”

The dispute raises questions about the scope of EU privacy rules when it comes to personal data on the Internet; the rights of search engines to use any online data to remain commercially successful; and who ultimately is in charge of what happens with the data. The Luxembourg-based court’s ruling will be binding on courts across the 27-nation bloc.

The case was triggered by about 200 instances of Spain’s data-protection authority ordering Google to remove information on people. The information in today’s case concerned a Spanish man whose house was auctioned off for failing to pay taxes. Newspaper La Vanguardia published the information in 1998 and years later it could still be found via a Google search.

‘Serious Harm’

“In this case and in many other cases, serious harm is done to individuals,” Joaquin Munoz Rodriguez, a lawyer representing the man, told the EU court. “The information is tracked and ordered by Google and contains, to a very large extent, personal data.”

Google is liable because it allows easy and quick access to information that wasn’t easily found online before, he said.

Google faces privacy investigations around the world as it adds services and steps up competition with Facebook Inc. for users and advertisers. The Mountain View, California-based company created a uniform set of privacy policies last year for more than 60 products, unleashing criticism from regulators and consumer advocates over whether it was properly protecting data.

“People shouldn’t be prevented from learning that a politician was convicted of taking a bribe, or that a doctor was convicted of malpractice,” Google said in a blog post. “The substantive question before the court today is whether search engines should be obliged to remove links to valid legal material.”

Data protection is currently policed by separate regulators across the EU. The bloc’s executive body wants to simplify the system so companies deal with only one.

A lawyer for the European Commission, the EU’s executive, argued today that Google does control data. That view diverges from an opinion of a group representing the bloc’s data-protection watchdogs, which said search engines are “generally not to be held primarily responsible” for content.

The case is: C-131/12, Google Spain, S.L., Google Inc. v. Agencia Espanola de Proteccion de Datos, Mario Costeja Gonzalez.

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