By Claire Davenport
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Google is subject to EU privacy law but is not obliged to delete sensitive information from its search index, an adviser to the highest European Union court said, in a case that tests whether people can erase harmful content from the Web.
The adviser's opinion vindicates the internet search giant's position that it cannot erase legal content from the Web even if it is harmful to an individual. But the opinion also rejected the view of many internet firms that they are not bound by EU privacy law.
"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," the court said in a statement communicating Advocate General Niilo Jaaskinen's opinion.
Jaaskinen said that while internet firms operating in the European Union must adhere to national data protection legislation, that did not oblige them to remove personal content produced by others.
"Search engine service providers are not responsible, on the basis of the Data Protection Directive, for personal data appearing on web pages they process," the statement said.
A final judgment on the case is expected before the end of the year. Judges in the European Court of Justice are not bound by the advocate general's opinion, but follow such recommendations in the majority of cases.
The opinion follows a complaint by a Spanish man that an auction notice of his home after it was repossessed infringes his privacy and should be deleted from Google's search results.
It is just one of 180 similar cases in Spain to have content deleted from Google searches. Those cases are on hold pending the EU court's decision.
The original auction notice was published in a Spanish newspaper, which said it was under a legal obligation to publish the notice.
Google welcomed the advocate general's opinion, saying it supported the company's view that deleting such content amounted to censorship.
"This is a good opinion for free expression," Google's Bill Echikson said in an emailed statement.
But Internet companies may be disappointed at the opinion that they should follow EU privacy law even if the data is handled outside the European Union. Many internet firms maintain that handling data outside the 27-member bloc puts them beyond the reach of EU privacy law.
The advocate general disagreed and said that even the presence of an ads business which is fundamental to the business model of companies such as Google means they should follow EU law. If that view is upheld by the ECJ judges it could put search firms under even more pressure to protect the data of privacy hungry Europeans.
(Reporting By Claire Davenport; editing by Rex Merrifield)