Should Google be accountable for what its search engine unearths?

An EU Court official backs Google's policy.

AP Photo/Virginia Mayo
"Search engines have no control over the information posted by others. They just point to it," writes Google's Head of Free Expression, William Echikson, in a blog post on Tuesday.

Google is not responsible for deleting data from its search index based on an individual’s or company’s “subjective preference,” according to an opinion released by the European Union Court’s Advocate General on Tuesday.

“Google is not generally considered as a ‘controller’ of the personal data appearing on web pages it processes,” writes Niilo Jaaskinen, the EU Court’s Advocate General.

The opinion allows for search engines, like Google, to block access to third-party sites with illegal or libelous content in accordance with local law, but does not stipulate that Internet companies are bound to remove “legitimate and legal information” of a third party website, citing the third parties’ “freedom of expression.”  

This means that Google and other foreign Internet providers are still subject to national Internet regulation within the European Union. But since no law currently exists that gives individuals the “right to be forgotten” – or have their digital records expunged, however unflattering those records might be – Google is not obliged to regulate the content that appears in its search results.

Erasing unsavory information on the basis of individual requests is a slippery slope, explains William Echilkson, Google’s Head of Free Expression for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. “People shouldn’t be prevented from learning that a politician was convicted of taking a bribe, or that a doctor was convicted of malpractice,” Mr. Echilkson writes on Google’s Europe blog in a post made on Tuesday.

Google hailed the opinion as “A step forward for free expression.”

The opinion was released in regards to a case that dates back nearly 15 years, before "being googled” became a common background check.

In 1998, Mario Costeja’s name appeared in the print edition of a widely-circulated Spanish newspaper concerning a real-estate auction, which was taking place to help repay Mr. Costeja’s social security debts. When the 1998 paper was made available online, Costeja’s real-estate ad was included in the edition, true to the paper’s original print version.

Costeja originally contacted the publisher in 2009 with a complaint that this old ad appeared when his name was searched on Google, and asked for the ad’s removal from the paper's online version. His request was rebuffed; the paper’s publisher said erasing this data was not appropriate. In less than a year, Costeja’s case had made it to Spain’s National High Court, which in turn referred the case to the EU’s Court of Justice.

There are over 180 similar court cases pending in Spain. 

The Advocate General’s opinion contradicts the decision issued by Spain’s National High Court, which called on Google to withdraw the advertisement from its search index, and is seen as a positive sign for Google in Europe, where the Internet giant has recently come under attack for its privacy policies.

The opinion came on the heels of a statement made Friday by Britain’s data regulator, the Information Commissioner’s Office, which ordered Google to delete personal data captured on its Street View project. On Thursday, France and Spain’s main two main watchdog groups increased pressures on Google to change its data privacy policy. 

The EU Court is just beginning their official deliberations in the Costeja case. 

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