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Google Wages Free-Speech Fight in Mexico

27/05/2015 1:30pm

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MEXICO CITY—Free-speech advocates are up in arms over a ruling against Google Mexico that they say opens the door for politicians and business moguls to abuse the so-called right to be forgotten by wiping out Internet links that cast them in a negative light.

The Google Inc. unit and local digital-rights activists are fighting in court to overturn a recent ruling by Mexico's Federal Institute for the Access to Information, or IFAI. In late February, the institute came down on the side of a transportation scion who wants three links removed that contain negative comments about his family's business dealings—including a government bailout of bad loans.

The ruling follows a precedent set in Europe one year ago known as " the right to be forgotten." Proponents say the European model allows people to regain their privacy in a hyperconnected world, while critics say it encourages a whitewash of the past.

Both the European Union and Mexico have exceptions to Internet privacy rules if the information is in the public interest. The IFAI, however, didn't apply the exception, arguing that Google didn't make its case.

The brouhaha in Mexico shows the global spread of the Internet-privacy debate. A new California law gives minors limited rights to erase postings on Internet sites, and Hong Kong is embroiled in a tug-of-war between the right to be forgotten and its corollary "the right to know." In Latin America, other countries that have passed or are considering digital-privacy laws include Brazil, Chile and Argentina.

Already, the ruling in Mexico has sparked other claims. A former northern border state governor is petitioning a newspaper website to remove a photo of his muscular torso, citing his right to privacy. A Spanish company named Eliminalia, which specializes in fighting to remove links on the Internet, has opened a unit in Mexico and says it has a roster of high-profile clients. On the company website, it says: "We erase your past."

Activists for an open Internet say that targeting Google Mexico is like trying to remove the card catalog in a library so no one can find books that might contain valuable history lessons.

"This is a case of shooting the messenger," said digital-rights lawyer Luis Fernando García, who is mounting a legal challenge to the decision by IFAI, a semi-autonomous body responsible for freedom-of-information requests and protecting privacy.

Mr. García says the low bar set by the agency would allow people to erase links they don't like about themselves without having to prove that the information is false or libelous. That violates Mexicans' constitutional right to free speech, he said, confident that local judges will agree.

Google Mexico said the IFAI decision "infringes on the right to access to information and freedom of speech," and that it is exercising its legal options.

Mexico's 2010 privacy law, like those in Europe, only requires the removal of links from local search engines, in this case google.com.mx. Some European authorities are now pushing to include google.com in its privacy rulings.

The IFAI had said in late February that it would seek fines against Google, but is holding off after a judge agreed to hear arguments against the ruling. "Mexico joins those nations that have set a precedent, by deciding that this international company is responsible for the treatment of personal data when it offers search-engine services," the agency said.

IFAI took the case in 2014 after Google Mexico rejected a petition by businessman Carlos Sánchez de la Peña, whose family has owned long-haul bus lines for generations. In his request to IFAI in September, Mr. Sánchez de la Peña said three Google links "distorted and decontextualized information about my activities as an entrepreneur."

The most prominent of the links is to a 2007 article in the local magazine Fortuna about a lawsuit against Mr. Sánchez's de la Peña's late father, Salvador Sánchez Alcántara, by shareholders in the bus company Estrella Blanca. Mr. Sánchez de la Peña is named in the story.

A lawyer for the shareholders declined to comment, saying the lawsuit is still active.

Estrella Blanca received millions of dollars in loans from Mexican banks that collapsed during the country's financial crisis in the mid-1990s. The loans, most of them past-due, were absorbed by Mexico's bank-bailout fund known as IPAB.

The other Google links are to publications and reader comments that repeat the IPAB allegations.

IFAI commissioners argued that Mr. Sánchez de la Peña met the requirement of the privacy law that allows for the removal of information when its "persistence causes injury" even if the information was lawfully published.

In a twist to the case, IFAI accidently released the name of Mr. Sánchez de la Peña when it failed to black out all references to his name in its resolution.

An IFAI representative said the agency didn't have any comment.

A lawyer for Mr. Sánchez de la Peña had no comment.

Some say the IFAI ruling favors the rich and the powerful who would like their alleged misdeeds forgotten.

"Google is a way for those of us with small voices and small audiences to be heard by the greater public," said Claudia Villegas, editor of Fortuna. "For us, it's a terrible precedent."

In the other right-to-be-forgotten case, the former governor of Coahuila, Humberto Moreira, petitioned the state newspaper Vanguardia in April to remove a 2013 photo of him lifting up his shirt to show his muscular abdomen, along with a "before" photo when he was overweight, according to the newspaper.

Vanguardia said the "after" photo was originally posted on social media and that the editors authenticated it with Mr. Moreira, who bragged that since leaving office he had been working out.

Mr. Moreira made the petition through Spain-based Eliminalia. The founder and president of Eliminalia, Dídac Sánchez, confirmed in a phone interview that Mr. Moreira was the firm's client and that it had made the petition on his behalf because the photos affect his privacy.

Mr. Moreira couldn't be reached for comment.

In Spain, Eliminalia has success rate of about 98% and a money-back guarantee, Mr. Sánchez said. He added that someone who has served out a jail sentence, for example, shouldn't be doubly punished by having the conviction remain forever on the Internet. "That person has the right to start over," he said.

Write to Laurence Iliff at laurence.iliff@wsj.com

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