Spanish privacy officials battle Google in court | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 29.03.2011
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Spanish privacy officials battle Google in court

The Spanish Data Protection Agency is representing 80 privacy cases against Google. Amongst these are one man who says he has been defamed by a 1991 article that is on the first page of search results for his name.

A hand typing with Google logo

Spanish privacy officials are taking Google to court

Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote that it would be impossible to live without forgetting. Remembering everything, he said, is "harmful and ultimately fatal." He was writing in the late 19th century, but in Spain the issue of being able to forget - or not - is very much alive in the digital age.

The reason is a current legal standoff between Google and the Spanish Data Protection Agency, which wants the search engine to remove links to personal information about individuals from its results pages in about 80 cases. The dispute is currently in the Spanish High Court, awaiting a ruling.

One of the most notable cases amongst this group is one man who doesn't want Google to remember his past: Hugo Guidotti Russo, a plastic surgeon in Madrid.

In 1991, the Spanish newspaper El País published a story about a 21-year-old woman who had sued Guidotti Russo for allegedly botching some breast surgery he had performed on her.

According to the article, he faced up to six years in prison and 3 million euros in damages if found guilty of negligence.

A search for Hugo Guidotti Russo on the Spanish version of Google shows a link to the 20-year-old newspaper article, which does not mention his acquittal, near the top of the first page of results.

Today, however, Guidotti Russo still practices and while he declined to speak to Deutsche Welle, he previously told The Wall Street Journal that he was cleared of the charges.

But the fact that people searching for him on the Spanish-language editions of Google will find this article so easily is precisely what is unsettling to him and the other plaintiffs: Google won't forget their past.

Google says case could have a 'chilling effect on free expression'

Viktor Mayer-Schönberger

Viktor Mayer-Schönberger says that this case will wrestle with "difficult" aspects of privacy

Privacy experts say that this could be a landmark case within Europe.

"By remembering each and every search result that we ever asked it and each and every search result that we ever clicked on, (Google) knows more about us than we remember ourselves, about ourselves," said Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, a professor at the Oxford Internet Institute, and an expert in Internet governance and regulation.

His 2009 book "Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age," explores the problems created by allowing the web to remember unlimited information.

Mayer-Schönberger highlights how this complex case raises ethical as well as technological issues.

"It is difficult, because it pits two fundamental rights against each other: the right to remember in a society versus the right to personal privacy and the right to be forgotten," he told Deutsche Welle.

The data protection agency has ordered Google to remove the controversial links from its results pages. Meanwhile, the California company, citing censorship, is now contesting most of the orders.

A company spokesperson, who declined to be interviewed for this story, did respond with a written statement.

"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," it said.

Case could be referred to European Court of Justice

Viviane Reding

EU justice commissioner Viviane Reding has been pushing for the "right to be forgotten" within the European Union

In January, the High Court began examining the case. But, it is now considering referring it to the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg before issuing a sentence and that could be months away.

Alejandro Tourino, a Spanish lawyer who specializes in Internet issues, says Spain is extremely proactive in pursuing alleged privacy infringements in this area.

"Spanish authorities are very protective," he said. "The sanctions provided by the Spanish agency of data protection are very high."

Spain's privacy laws include fines of up to 600,000 euros ($847,000) for serious infringements, such as publishing personal information in an inappropriate context. The authorities say this is the case here, as many of Google's top links are out of context.

Mayer-Schönberger added that one solution to this kind of problem would be the widespread use of expiry dates for online information, ensuring documents disappeared after a certain period of time.

In the meantime, the European Union is considering introducing its own "right to be forgotten" to its laws.

In November, Viviane Reding, EU justice commissioner, said that "God forgives and forgets but the Web never does."

However, while a legal solution may take years, technical solutions may come sooner: in fact, in January, a German developer in Saarbrücken unveiled such software that will allow photos to "expire" online.

Author: Guy Hedgecoe, Madrid
Editor: Cyrus Farivar

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