Privacy Vs Censorship: Google, Spanish Government Face Off In European Courts

google-eu-featuredIn a test case that could have significant implications for Google throughout Europe the company faced off against the Spanish data protection authority in the Court of Justice of the European Union in Luxembourg. One could frame the case as “privacy vs. censorship.”

From the Spanish government’s point of view its data protection authority is simply vindicating the recently articulated right (of individuals) “to be forgotten” — to have content or data about them removed from the search index upon request. From Google’s perspective, if the court agrees with Spain, the outcome would be tantamount to granting individuals the right to censor Google.

A concise statement of the underlying facts of the case is provided by Reporters without Borders:

The Spanish citizen, Mario Costeja, filed a complaint with the Spanish Data Protection Agency (AEPD) against Google and the newspaper La Vanguardia on 9 March 2012 after discovering that a Google search for his name produced results referring to the auction of real estate property seized from him for non-payment of social security contributions.

The AEPD rejected Costeja’s complaint against the newspaper on the grounds that “the publication of the information was legal and was protected by the right to information” but, with extraordinary inconsistency, upheld his complaint his complaint against Google, ordering the search engine to eliminate about 100 links from all future searches for Costeja’s name.

Google refused to accept the ruling and filed an appeal . . . 

As Google indicated in its blog post, there are roughly 200 cases like this pending in Spain featuring individuals seeking to have content about them removed from search results.

As the factual summary above indicates, Spanish authorities decided that newspapers are protected from these individual “takedown requests” by a right to information or expression (free speech). However, Google is not being given the same treatment. This is true despite the fact that in earlier decisions, Google was labeled a “publisher” for purposes of libel laws.

Google thus gets the liability treatment of a “publisher” without the corresponding freedom of expression protections accorded to newspapers.

Speaking with someone with knowledge of the European Court proceedings yesterday, I was told that the judges expressed skepticism about at least some of Spain’s arguments in the case. For example, Spain wants Google to remove the disputed information not just from its Spanish index but from all Google results globally.

I was told that a ruling may not come down for several months. And, like the US Supreme Court, the European judicial body could narrowly rule on the particular facts or broadly articulate principles around “the right to be forgotten” that might apply across Europe.

Part of what’s going on here is a culture clash between Google, an American company, and very different European notions of individual privacy. However, there’s really no cultural or legal justification for the Spanish data protection authority’s inconsistency and double standards around Google’s status as a “publisher.”

One gets the sense that if a European search engine were in Google’s position, on the receiving end of these complaints, the Spanish regulator’s attitude might be quite different.

Related Entries

Related Topics: Channel: Industry | Google: Critics | Google: Legal | Google: Outside US | Google: Web Search | Legal: Censorship | Legal: Privacy | Legal: Regulation | Top News


About The Author: is a Contributing Editor at Search Engine Land. He writes a personal blog Screenwerk, about SoLoMo issues and connecting the dots between online and offline. He also posts at Internet2Go, which is focused on the mobile Internet. Follow him @gsterling.

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  • Ian Lockwood

    “One gets the sense that if a European search engine were in Google’s position, on
    the receiving end of these complaints, the Spanish regulator’s attitude might be quite different.”

    Got any evidence for that Greg? Sounds like the usual isolationist, cultural imperialist perspective of the US to me. Just because Uncle Sam doesn’t see a problem with companies riding roughshod over individuals’ rights, doesn’t mean it’s the correct legal or moral position.

    In this case, I’m inclined to agree that the Spanish can’t have it both ways – you’re either a publisher with according freedom of speech protection, or you’re a company making libellous statements. You can’t be both.

    However, I’m not sure your suggestion that a company from elsewhere in the world would be treated any differently is correct and I resent the underlying tone of “tut tut, those silly Europeans and their anti-American agenda.”

  • Caitlin Roberts

    Maybe Google should pull out of the Spanish market? It is not that difficult is it, if you are not happy with the laws of the land where you operate, you leave.

  • Greg Sterling

    I think it’s pretty clear that there’s widespread resentment for Google partly on the basis of its behavior and partly because it’s a US corp. (Denying the latter point is naive.)

    Yes, you’re right there’s a perception that Google is part or a larger internet “imperialist” wave of US companies (incl. Facebook) that holds too much sway globally. Hence the resentment — although that’s not what you meant I realize.

    Think about the French for example and their attitude toward American companies and institutions. Ambivalent at best.

    I think non-EU companies might be regarded with similar skepticism but I don’t believe that a Spanish or EU-based search engine would face the same “double standard” here. I’m not a Google partisan I just think there’s hypocrisy going on.

    The evidence of that is Google being treated as a publisher for liability purposes (libel) but not from a “right of expression” perspective.

    I don’t consider European privacy regulators silly and I believe that the culture of American business/capitalism is too lax and exploitative when it comes to individual privacy. I just think the Spanish position in this case is a bit ridiculous.

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