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January 31, 2011

In Madrid Court, Google Challenges Europe's Privacy Laws

by Lauren Frayer

In a Madrid court, the technology giant Google is fighting a Spanish order to remove some data from search queries. The case centers on a principle of Spanish law known as "the right to be forgotten," and it's Google's latest clash with European privacy laws.

Let's say someone accuses you of a crime. The local newspaper picks up the accusation, but then you defend yourself, and are proven innocent. Years later, that newspaper report may still exist somewhere on the Internet. Do you have a right to have it omitted?

That's the question a Madrid court is debating, in a case between the tech giant Google and Spain's data protection agency. Spanish authorities filed 90 court orders against Google, on behalf of Spanish citizens who want links to libelous information about them dropped from Google searches. Here in Spain, their desire is enshrined in law, and called "the right to be forgotten."

"The general argument is what we call 'derecho al olvido,' the kind of right to be forgotten, and it's based on the right of every single individual and citizen has to claim for his or her data to be used in a proper manner,” said Paloma Llaneza, a data protection lawyer representing some of the plaintiffs. “Just to explain it in a very simple way, when you are Googling someone and you are finding some information, what we ask is to delete, or to make not available that information through Google."

Google did not respond to requests for an interview. But the company has issued previous statements saying it's not its job to censor the Internet. Google says it's your local newspaper's responsibility to eliminate any false reports - not Google's. The tech company refused the Spanish orders, and it's all being argued now in court.

Llaneza says it's an issue of respecting Spanish law, if Google wants to do business here.

"Maybe for Google sometimes it's difficult to understand,” Llaneza added. “There are different cultures all around the world. But the truth is, we very much care about privacy and about data protection. And especially because Google is addressing its services to the Spanish country. They are using a dot-E-S domain name, they are translating everything into Spanish and they are tailoring their services for our country. So they have to be prepared to comply with Spanish law - that's all."

This is Google's latest clash with Europe's relatively strict privacy laws. The company is either in court or on the brink in Britain, Germany, France, Italy and the Czech Republic as well, over how it collects personal information about users. Many of the complaints are about Google's "Street View" project - capturing images of nearly every street and house - that some governments feel violates property owners' privacy.

Joel Reidenberg has been professor of information law in Paris and New York. He says most European privacy laws were written well before the Internet, and there's an inherent clash between privacy and the very nature of the web - free-flowing information that doesn't stop at national borders.

"These problems will absolutely continue to come up, until one of two things happens: Either the technology companies begin to build architectures that enable compliance with existing law, or the law begins to change," Reidenberg said.

Reidenberg says he thinks the sheer number of legal complaints about Google shows that European governments aren't likely to back down.

"I think these are illustrations that the regulatory agencies are saying to the technology companies building business models around the use of personal information, that they must be adapting their technologies to make them privacy friendly," Reidenberg added.

That's exactly what happened in Germany. Hans Kessler, a privacy law expert in Leipzig, says that after complaints about "Street View" there, Google set up a service through which residents could request that their houses be blurred out on the Internet.

"So far there's no court decision, but there was an agreement between Google and data protection authorities in Germany,” said Kessler. “Google actually introduced a formal complaint procedure. Owners of houses or even just people living there, inhabitants, could file a complaint with Google, so they could enforce their right and the house would be pixilated, so it's no longer visible on Google."

Kessler says Google was able to avoid litigation on the Street View issue, but he thinks German regulators are gearing up for more battles.

"It's really the only way for the companies to avoid stricter regulations, though I really think there will be strict regulations,” Kessler added. “I'm not totally in favor of them, but there are so many feuds now on the Internet where we see efforts of the states to enforce stricter controls on the Internet."

Llaneza, the Spanish lawyer, says she thinks some of these privacy battles are inevitable for big tech companies like Google.

"There are advantages to being a worldwide company, but there are some disadvantages. You have to take into consideration domestic law," said Llaneza.

A ruling on Google's case in Spain is expected within weeks or months.