Is Google responsible for material it links to, even when that material might damage a person's reputation? The European Court of Justice doesn't believe so.
In an opinion by advocate general Niilo Jääskinen published on Tuesday, Google should not be held responsible for what appears on web pages it links to and Europe's data protection watchdogs cannot compel Google to remove specific sites or material from its index.
The decision comes after the case of a Spanish man whose property was sold due to non-payment of social security debts — a fact that came up in a newspaper article when the man's name was Googled 10 years later.
The individual asked Google to remove links to the newspaper article when a search was performed on his name, and filed a complaint with Spain's data protection watchdog the Agencia Española de Protección de Datos (AEPD). The AEPD upheld the compliant, and said Google should remove the newspaper article from its index.
Google appealed to the Spanish high court, which referred the decision onto the European Court of Justice.
The advocate general believes Google is not considered a publisher of information, and is therefore not obliged to make sure the information it links to complies with the European data protection directive.
"In effect, provision of an information location tool does not imply any control over the content included on third party web pages," the opinion said.
"A national data protection authority cannot require an internet search engine service provider to withdraw information from its index except in cases where this service provider has not complied with the exclusion codes [where a website publisher has stipulated material on the site shouldn't be indexed by Google] or where a request emanating from a website regarding an update of cache memory has not been complied with," it added.
However, search giants will still have to comply with local laws regarding removing links to websites hosting illegal or pirated material, according to the opinion.
"In contrast, requesting search engine service providers to suppress legitimate and legal information that has entered the public domain would entail an interference with the freedom of expression of the publisher of the web page. In his [the court's advocate general] view, it would amount to censorship of his published content by a private party," it added.
The advocate general's opinion will be taken into account by the European Court of Justice in giving its decision on the matter, which is likely to follow Jääskinen's stance. Spain's national court will then have to rule on the case, but again, will typically agree with the court.