Google can limit the "right to be forgotten" to internet searches made in the European Union, an adviser to the bloc's top court said on Thursday, backing an appeal by the U.S. search giant against a French fine.
European Court of Justice judges typically follow the advice of the advocate general, usually within two to four months, although they are not bound to do so.
Maciej Szpunar's opinion was welcomed by Google, which locked horns with France's privacy watchdog after being fined in 2016 for failing to delist sensitive information beyond the borders of the EU.
"We've worked hard to ensure that the right to be forgotten is effective for Europeans, including using geolocation to ensure 99 percent effectiveness," Peter Fleischer, Google's senior privacy counsel, said.
France's CNIL data protection authority said it noted the opinion and restated its view that the right to privacy should apply regardless of the geographical origin of the person doing an internet search.
Europeans gained the right to ask search engines to delist certain information about them in a landmark ruling five years ago. If approved, a decision based on a balance between a person's right to privacy and the public's right to know, the content will not appear in search results.
Szpunar said searches made from outside the EU should not be affected by this "de-referencing" of information.
"The fundamental right to be forgotten must be balanced against other fundamental rights, such as the right to data protection and the right to privacy, as well as the legitimate public interest in accessing the information sought," he said.
Once the right to be forgotten had been established within the EU, a search engine operator should do all it can to remove entries, including using geo-blocking in the event that the IP address of a device connected to the internet is deemed to be within the EU, Szpunar added.
Google, which estimates that it has removed 2.9 million links under the right to be forgotten, had appealed a 100,000 euro ($115,000) fine from CNIL in March 2016 for failing to delist information across national borders, sending the case to the European Court of Justice.
In a second dispute between a group of individuals and CNIL, Szpunar said that prohibitions on processing certain types of data should also apply to the operators of search engines.
This case involves the CNIL's refusal to order the removal of links found in searches using individuals' names.
These included a satirical photomontage of a female politician; an article referring to one interested party as a public relations officer of the Church of Scientology; the placing under investigation of a male politician; and the conviction of another party for sexual assaults against minors.
In its own transparency report on European search removals, Google says that around nine out of every 10 requests come from private individuals.
Cases involving public figures vary - for example Google turned down a request to remove a link to a German newspaper article critical of an artist's work.
In another, it rejected most of a batch of requests to remove links about a senior manager at a major British company who had received a long prison sentence for fraud.
Szpunar's views were welcomed by Article 19, a UK-based rights group that focuses on freedom of expression:
"European data regulators should not be able to determine the search results that internet users around the world get to see," Article 19 Executive Director Thomas Hughes said, adding he hoped the court's judges would back Szpunar.
(Writing by Douglas Busvine, additional reporting by Philip Blenkinsop and Peter Maushagen in Brussels; editing by Elaine Hardcastle and Alexander Smith)
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