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Google defies Spanish requests to hide personal information

Search engine giant says burying disputed links would be "censorship"

Google is refusing to comply with petitions to remove personal data.
Google is refusing to comply with petitions to remove personal data.CLAUDIO ÁLVAREZ

Google refuses to conceal information; it feels that would be censorship. It does not matter that the petitions come from citizens who are directly affected by the dissemination of personal data that the company promotes through its web searches. Nor does it matter that these individuals are making their requests through official agencies.

Between July and December 2011, Google received 43 requests from Spanish state organizations, including the National Police, asking for the removal of 307 items. But the California-based company refused to delete many of the links on grounds that this would constitute "censorship." Of all the petitions for content removal (18 of which were court orders), which include five videos on YouTube, 11 blogs on Blogger and two items on its Gmail email service, the company completely or partially eliminated 37 percent, according to the Google Transparency Report published this week.

The report addresses 14 petitions from the Spanish Data Protection Agency (AEPD) between July and December 2011. "We received 14 requests from the Spanish Data Protection Authority to remove 270 search results that linked to blogs and sites referencing individuals and public figures. The Spanish Data Protection Authority also ordered the removal of three blogs published on Blogger and three videos hosted on YouTube. We did not comply with these requests."

The AEPD says it in fact issued 18 orders over that period of time. The search engine giant and the AEPD are in court over the issue of content indexation on the internet. The US company will not eliminate links to information published by third parties "because it originally belongs to those websites," while the AEPD considers that the search engine should observe the "derecho al olvido" or "right to be forgotten," which recognizes a person's right to block information affecting his or her privacy or dignity.

The AEPD's director, José Luís Rodríguez Álvarez, underscores that it is asking Google to stop showing certain results, not to eliminate any content. "Nowhere do we demand that the content be altered, but simply that they not offer a search result when it is not publicly relevant, when it is not news and when its indiscriminate dissemination violates people's rights," he says.

The Google report lies more than any other report in Spain, which is certainly ironic"

Rather than demand that the content itself be eliminated from the original websites that publish it, what these plaintiffs want is for the content to be harder to access; this can be done by changing how search engines such as Google index it, so that the result shows up much lower on the list.

"The Google report lies more than any other report in Spain, which is certainly ironic, coming from a company that specializes in censorship," says Miguel Cobacho, of the law firm SalirdeInternet.com, which specializes in eliminating content from the internet and official publications. "Anyone can access the rulings and see that the data is biased and deliberately misleading."

The AEPD director, José Luís Rodríguez Álvarez, complains that Google "deliberately misleads public opinion by mixing requests from authoritarian states and from independent EU bodies" in its transparency report.

The High Court - which has the power to reverse orders from the AEPD - is already dealing with 130 cases involving the "right to be forgotten," and has turned for help to the European Court of Justice, the decision of which will be binding for all member states.

In every case that has reached court, Google Spain has alleged that because its headquarters are in California, it is outside Spanish jurisdiction and only subject to US legislation on data protection. Only Google Inc. is in charge of content indexation, with Google Spain playing only a commercial role.

"Google Spain limits its activity exclusively to the promotion, facilitation and/or to procuring the sale of online products and/or services through the internet for third parties, acting as a sales agent," explains the AEPD. But the High Court says a fundamental right cannot depend on the location that the search engine manager has chosen to host the technical equipment. The AEPD follows the same criteria.

The complaints are filed by companies and individuals alike and often involve old events and news that would have been long forgotten before the advent of the internet, but which keep cropping up through the power of search engines. In one case, a campsite in Tarragona complained that a Google search turned up horrifying images of an accident that took place there in 1978, through no fault of its own. In another, a former gymnast who was erroneously said to suffer from anorexia keeps seeing the story turn up decades after it was published.

On December 26, 2011, the AEPD told Google to remove a damaging comment against the plaintiff that was published on a blog called Elintegrismoespecado.blogspot.com. The AEPD considered that this individual was not a public figure and had not given prior consent to the content. On December 30, a citizen requested the elimination of a Google link to an issue of the Official Gazette that published his pardon. On December 24, a citizen demanded that several blogs delete references to his personal information in connection with a case of real estate corruption in Totana, Murcia.

Now, on petition from the Spanish High Court, the Luxembourg court will have to determine the exact nature of internet search engines' activities and to what degree they are bound by data protection legislation. The Spanish tribunal wants to know whether laws that apply in the EU can be applied to Google Spain; whether search engines, when they index content, can be considered to be treating personal information. It also wants to know whether data protection includes the right to be forgotten.

Neither obsolete nor false

The Spanish Data Protection Agency (AEPD) does not uphold all of the claims filed by citizens concerned about their online profile. For instance, on November 25, 2011, one plaintiff alleged that Google's search results showed links to news stories published in the media in which personal information about himself was disclosed.

The plaintiff, who was quoted in the press as facing charges in a corruption case, said he had not given his consent to having this information in print. But the agency said it "did not perceive any legitimate, well-founded motive that would justify the right to objection, since we are dealing with a case of public relevance in which it is not proven that the data and the information they contain are inaccurate or that they have become obsolete."

In a similar case from July 12, the AEPD dismissed the plaintiff's demands for the same reasons, and stressed that "the publication of a news story in the digital version of a newspaper is protected by the Constitution." Yahoo!, which was also sued along with Google in the case, did eliminate the links.

In a ruling dated July 29, the plaintiff complained about a link to the official gazette of Valladolid province informing of a job selection process that showed his personal information. The agency dismissed the complaint because it said the right to be forgotten did not apply yet. The selection process was not over when the complaint attempting to eliminate the plaintiff's personal information was filed.

In another case, the AEPD refused to order the removal of a Google link to a news story published on the website of the Cadena SER radio station concerning the president of Fundación Manos Tendidas, a foundation that works with the mentally disabled. The same happened with a July 18 resolution regarding a link to the Official State Gazette that published voter registration information. Finally, the last three rulings by the AEPD also dismissed the complaints, which had to do with a public announcement and an article published in the newspaper Abc.

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