* Google can be required to remove sensitive data
* Case pits freedom of expression against privacy rights
* Court ruling may burden Internet operators with extra
* Verdict likely to benefit ordinary people, not public
(Adds U.S. legal analysis, paragraphs 14-15)
By Foo Yun Chee
BRUSSELS, May 13 Internet companies can be made
to remove irrelevant or excessive personal information from
search engine results, Europe's top court ruled on Tuesday in a
case pitting privacy campaigners against Google.
The Court of Justice of the European Union (ECJ) upheld the
complaint of a Spanish man who objected to the fact that Google
searches on his name threw up links to a 1998 newspaper article
about the repossession of his home.
The case highlighted the struggle in cyberspace between free
speech advocates and supporters of privacy rights who say people
should have the "right to be forgotten" - meaning that they
should be able to remove their digital traces from the Internet.
It creates technical challenges as well as potential extra
costs for companies like Google, the world's no. 1 search
engine, and Facebook.
Google can be required to remove data that are "inadequate,
irrelevant or no longer relevant, or excessive in relation to
the purposes for which they were processed and in the light of
the time that has elapsed," said judges at the Luxembourg-based
court. The ECJ said the rights of people whose privacy has been
infringed outweighed the general public interest.
Google said it was disappointed with the ruling, which
contradicted a non-binding opinion from the ECJ's court adviser
last year that said deleting sensitive information from search
results would interfere with freedom of expression.
"We are very surprised that it differs so dramatically from
the Advocate General's opinion and the warnings and consequences
that he spelled out. We now need to take time to analyse the
implications," said Google spokesman Al Verney.
The European Commission proposed in 2012 that people should
have the "right to be forgotten" on the Internet. This was
watered down by the European Parliament last year in favour of a
"right to erasure" of specific information.
The proposal needs the blessing of the 28 European Union
governments before it can become law. Google, Facebook and other
Internet companies have lobbied against such plans, worried
about the extra costs.
The issues of privacy and data protection in Europe have
become all the more sensitive since a former U.S. intelligence
contractor, Edward Snowden, leaked details last year of U.S.
surveillance programmes for monitoring vast quantities of emails
and phone records worldwide.
Tuesday's court ruling will likely benefit ordinary people
but not public figures, said Larry Cohen, a partner at law firm
Latham & Watkins.
"The ruling will help certain people hide their past, making
it difficult to access certain information, but not when it
concerns public figures, or people in whom there is a genuine
public interest," he said.
"This will result in added costs for Internet search
providers who will have to add to their take-down policies the
means for removing links to an individual's data, and develop
criteria for distinguishing public figures from private
individuals," he said.
In the United States, California recently passed a state
"eraser" law which will require tech companies to remove
material posted by a minor, if the user requests it. The new
rule is scheduled to take effect in 2015 and will likely face a
court challenge, said Thomas Burke, a partner with Davis Wright
Tremaine in San Francisco.
"It's a reflection of the same sort of views that users have
a right to control what they post," said Burke, adding that he
was not aware of any pending U.S. lawsuits against Internet
companies similar to the European case.
The Spanish data protection agency said the case was one of
220 similar ones in Spain whose complainants want Google to
delete their personal information from the Web.
"We are very satisfied that there is an end now to the
ferocious resistance shown by the search engine to comply with
the resolutions of the Spanish data protection agency in this
matter," a spokeswoman for the agency said.
European Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding said that the
court ruling vindicated EU efforts to toughen up privacy rules.
"Companies can no longer hide behind their servers being
based in California or anywhere else in the world," she said.
Google suffered a previous privacy setback earlier this year
when a German court ordered it to block search results in
Germany linked to photos of a sex party involving former Formula
One motor racing boss Max Mosley.
(Additional reporting by Harro ten Wolde in Frankfurt, Robert
Hetz in Madrid and Dan Levine in San Francisco; Editing by
Adrian Croft, Mark Trevelyan and Gunna Dickson)