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Google Battles European Judges Over Privacy

(c) Sky News 2013

European judges are considering a case which could have significant implications for how personal information on the internet is managed.

Their decision potentially has huge repercussions for search engines like Google (NasdaqGS: GOOG - news) .

The European Court of Justice (ECJ) is to rule on whether the technology giant invades personal privacy after a referral from Spain's high court.

A leading Spanish surgeon complained that Google search results treat him unfairly.

Charged with criminal negligence in 1991, he was later acquitted - but when a Google search of his name is carried out, only references to his arrest are immediately visible.

Spain's equivalent of the Data Protection Agency, the Agencia Espanola de Proteccion de Datos (AEPD), argues that the online "right to be forgotten" enshrined in European Directive should include the ability to delete incorrect or out-of-date information.

Google has argued that to do so would be an attack on freedom of expression, arguing that it is not the creator nor the controller of the information.

Instead it sees itself as an intermediary, and that it should not be compelled to remove data from its website when it has been published entirely legally elsewhere on the internet.

The ECJ will also decide on where data protection complaints should be heard - and which rules should apply.

Google says that as its headquarters are in California, and that Google Spain is only responsible for selling advertising so the wider company is subject to US data protection legislation.

But the AEPD argues that Google indexes Spanish websites and has a Spanish domain name - and that the "centre of gravity" of the litigation is in Spain, as it involves information about Spanish citizens, on Spanish websites, in Spain.

Google has in the past filtered its search results in certain jurisdictions to comply with the law.

In France and Germany, it deletes results for neo-Nazi and racist groups, and in the US it blocks sites known for copyright violation.

If the search engine is unsuccessful, it would have to delete the information concerned from its Spanish website, and deal with a further 88 complaints to the AEPD.

But it would then undoubtedly face similar complaints from citizens of other European countries.

Google's mission statement - to "organise the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful" - might soon need a bit of redrafting.