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EU court says Google doesn't have to delete sensitive data from search results (update)

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The Advocate General at the European Court of Justice has said that Google should not have to delete sensitive information from its search results. In a statement published today, EU adviser Niilo Jääskinen said that while Google must comply with local data protection laws, it doesn't need to remove sensitive information that is lawfully produced by a third party. It shows that in some cases, protecting freedom of speech might overrule rights to privacy. Google is already facing fines in both France and Spain if it doesn't amend its privacy policy.

In some cases, protecting freedom of speech might overrule privacy

"Search engine service providers are not responsible, on the basis of the Data Protection Directive, for personal data appearing on web pages they process," the court said on behalf of Jääskinen. The directive comes after a Spanish man lodged a complaint against Google and Google Spain in 2010 requesting that they take down details of an auction notice that was placed on his home. A Spanish newspaper published a story in print and later submitted a digital version of the article, which was then indexed by Google.

The directive states that Google doesn't have any control over the content included on third-party web pages, meaning it "cannot in law or in fact fulfil the obligations" that it is lawfully asked to. The company may be forced to block access to websites with illegal content — which might infringe copyright or contain libellous information — but in this case the information it displayed had already entered the public domain. While the Advocate General’s statement isn't binding, the proposal is generally followed by European judges in cases such as this. A final judgement is expected before the end of the year.

Update: In a statement, Bill Echikson, Head of Free Expression at Google EMEA said:

"This is a good opinion for free expression. We’re glad to see it supports our long-held view that requiring search engines to suppress ‘legitimate and legal information’ would amount to censorship."