MADRID (AP) — Lawyers for Google (News - Alert) went to court Wednesday in Madrid to appeal demands by Spanish authorities that the company delete links to websites containing information officials say violates Spaniards' privacy rights.
Google Inc. says it's the first case of its kind — and a Spanish decision mandating the deletion of the links could hurt freedom of expression.
Spain's Data Protection Agency said it filed the orders against Google at the request of individuals who lodged complaints and because the original publishers of the material cannot legally be ordered to take them down.
The agency has issued 90 orders for Google to take down links. The National Court on Wednesday heard arguments from both sides on the first five orders to be appealed.
The cases include a surgeon who was absolved of charges of criminal negligence in a 1991 case but who sees a Spanish newspaper reference to the original case — and not the acquittal — whenever his name is keyed into Google's search engine.
Another case involved a woman who was denied a local government grant years ago but reference to the case and data about her keeps appearing in searches using her name.
Google's chief argument is that it is just an intermediary and that the original publishers are responsible for the content.
Google fears that a ruling against by the court would effectively give the U.S. search engine giant publisher status and make it accountable for the material it provides on the Internet.
"We are disappointed by the actions of the Spanish privacy regulator. Spanish and European law rightly hold the publisher of material responsible for its content," Peter Barron, Director of External Relations for Google, said prior to the hearing.
"Requiring intermediaries like search engines to censor material published by others would have a profound chilling effect on free expression without protecting people's privacy," he said.
The five cases involved information published in newspapers or official gazettes.
Jose Antonio Perales, a lawyer for the data protection agency, said each of the five individuals claimed their dignity and privacy were affected by the fact that references to past events involving them continued to appear in Internet searches.
"We face a violation of fundamental rights," said Gabriel Gomez, a lawyer acting on behalf of the surgeon. "The Internet can't be a refuge for insults, threats or offenses."
But lawyers for Google pointed out that the data agency had not called on any of the news providers to modify or remove their content. They argued there are Internet tools available so that newspapers could block search engines from indexing certain material.
They also pointed out that Google had blocked information when it was shown to be criminal, such as child pornography sites.
"All the sentences (in other countries) under which Google has de–indexed pages are sentences which declared the content illegal," said Google lawyer Javier Aparicio, arguing that the material concerned in the Spanish cases was not illegal.
A ruling by the National Court could take weeks, even months.
The case is the latest legal wrangle involving Google. Google's street mapping program has been dogged by privacy concerns in Europe since its launch, and authorities across the world have mounted probes into the tech company's practices.
There has been an ongoing debate over online privacy and the so–called "right to be forgotten." European Union officials have been looking for ways to allow citizens to delete information about themselves that they do not wish to appear on the Internet.