Spain refers Google privacy complaints to EU's top court

BRUSSELS Fri Mar 2, 2012 1:31pm EST

People ride their bikes past Google Inc. headquarters in Mountain View, California, May 8, 2008. REUTERS/Kimberly White

People ride their bikes past Google Inc. headquarters in Mountain View, California, May 8, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Kimberly White

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BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Spain's highest court wants the top court in Europe to decide if requests by Spanish citizens to have data deleted from Google's search engine are lawful, in a case that could put more pressure on it to review its privacy policies.

The court, the Audiencia Nacional, said it had asked the European Court of Justice (ECJ) to clarify whether Google should remove data from its search engine's index and news aggregator even when it is not responsible for producing the content in its search results.

Madrid's data protection authority has received over 100 requests from Spanish citizens to have their data removed from Google's search results.

Among the cases is one of a Spanish man who complained to the national regulator about a notice of his home's repossession for non-payment of social security, which kept appearing in a national newspaper in the Google News aggregator. In another case, a plastic surgeon wants to get rid of archived references to a botched operation.

The Spanish judges also asked the ECJ whether the complainants must take their grievances to California, where Google is based and said it wanted the matters heard.

The referral of the case to the ECJ marks the first formal inquiry into when people can demand that their data be deleted.

Such a "right to be forgotten" is included in updated data protection rules proposed by Viviane Reding, the European commissioner for justice and fundamental rights, and is being considered by the European Parliament.

The Spanish judges' request also fuels the ongoing debate over when the web giant should delete content from its massive news index.

Google has maintained that it cannot lawfully remove any content for which it is merely the host and not the producer, a principle enshrined in EU law on eCommerce since 2000.

The U.S.-based web search company told the Spanish prosecutor it needed more legal justification for removing references to events in an individual's history, the court said in a statement on its website. (www.poderjudicial.es)

Google was upbeat about the referral to the European court - in a case likely to be watched closely by many web firms which would welcome more clarity on usage of right to be forgotten.

"We support the right to be forgotten, and we think there are ways to apply it to intermediaries like search engines in a way that protects both the right to privacy and the right to free expression," a Google spokesman told Reuters.

In one of the highest profile cases over the right to be forgotten, Google told the Leveson inquiry into the British press on January 26 that it had removed hundreds of web pages that contained information about former motor-racing boss Max Mosley and his sex life.

The Spanish referral comes two days after the French Data Protection Authority said it wanted Google to delay implementing a new privacy policy which allows all of its services such as Gmail, YouTube and Google+ to share users' information. Google introduced the new policy on March 1.

(Reporting by Claire Davenport; Editing by Rex Merrifield and Alison Williams)

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