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Google not obliged to delete data, rules EU lawyer

image captionThe EU is currently debating citizens' rights to delete data

Google cannot be obliged to delete sensitive information from its search index, a key adviser to the European Court of Justice has said.

It follows a Spanish case which challenged Google to remove outdated financial details about an individual.

The opinion of advocate general Niilo Jaaskinen could influence a wider EU debate over whether people have "the right to be forgotten".

Privacy campaigners believe individuals should have greater control over data.

No controller

The specific case Mr Jaaskinen was considering goes back to November 2009 when a Spanish man complained about links on Google to an e-newspaper report detailing how debts had led to his house being repossessed.

He argued that, as the report was 10 years old, the links were no longer relevant and should be removed. He failed to get the original article removed because it was deemed to be in the public interest.

He lodged a complaint with the Spanish Data Protection Agency who upheld it.

The case later moved the European Court of Justice.

In his written opinion on the case, Mr Jaaskinen took the view that Google was "not generally to be considered as a controller of the personal data appearing on web pages it processes".

"Therefore, a national data protection authority cannot require an internet search engine provider to withdraw information from its index," he wrote.

He added that this meant users would not be able to invoke "a general right to be forgotten... against search engine service providers".

The court is not bound by Mr Jaaskinen's opinion although generally such recommendations are followed.

A final judgement on the case is expected before the end of the year.

Erasing profiles

The case will be seen as a test of "the right to be forgotten" strand of the Data Protection Regulation, which is currently being debated by the European Parliament.

The EU is planning updates for the Data Protection directive, which was originally adopted in 1995 when the internet was in its infancy.

The right to be forgotten clause, which has the support of EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding, was developed in response to complaints about the way search engines and social media firms handle information.

Increasingly users are concerned about a range of issues - from difficulties erasing social media accounts, to lack of control of photographs published by others.

Google welcomed the views of Mr Jaaskinen.

Bill Echikson, head of free expression at Google, said: "This is a good opinion for free expression. We're glad to see it supports our long-held view that requiring search engines to suppress 'legitimate and legal information' would amount to censorship."

But Big Brother Watch said that that making a connection between this particular case and the rights of citizens to delete data was "absurd".

"The right to be forgotten was never intended to be a way for people to rewrite history," said director Nick Pickles.

"The whole point was to allow people to tackle information at source and Google was not the source of this information - a Spanish newspaper was.

"A better example of why it is needed would be when someone wants to close a Facebook account. Facebook shouldn't be able to hold on to our information just in case you want to re-join," he added.

"It's important that citizens have better rights when it comes to stopping companies collecting data without proper consent or holding on to information for an unjustifiable length of time, even when people have ceased to use a service."

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