Google and privacy: Six EU countries take action (Update 4)

Google and privacy: 6 EU countries take action
In this Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2011 file photo, a carpet at the entrance of Google France's new offices before its inauguration by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, in Paris. Google's new privacy policy is under attack from regulators in its largest European markets, who on Tuesday, April 2, 2013 brought legal action to try and force the company to overhaul practices they say let it create a data goldmine at the expense of unwitting users. (AP Photo/Jacques Brinon, Pool-File)

Google's new privacy policy is under legal attack from regulators in its largest European markets, who want the company to overhaul practices they say let it create a data goldmine at the expense of unwitting users.

Led by the French, organizations in Britain, the Netherlands, Germany, Spain and Italy agreed Tuesday on the joint action, with the ultimate possibility of imposing fines or restrictions on operations across the entire 27-country European Union.

Last year, the company merged 60 separate privacy policies from around the world into one universal procedure. The European organizations complain that the new policy doesn't allow users to figure out which information is kept, how it is combined by Google services or how long the company retains it.

The fines' financial impact on Google Inc. would be limited—French privacy watchdog CNIL has the right to fine the company up to 300,000 euros ($385,000), approximately the amount it earns in three minutes, based on its projected revenue of $61 billion this year. Britain can fine up to 500,000 pounds, but rarely does.

But successful legal action would hurt Google's image and could block its ability to collect such data until it addresses the regulators' concerns.

Google dominates the European market for Internet searches. According to one survey, as much as 95 percent of searches in Europe are carried out through Google, compared with about 65 percent in the United States. European regulators have demanded specifics for anyone using Google on what's being collected and a simpler presentation.

Tensions between privacy and the swiftly evolving ability of companies to spin online usage data into vast profits are ramping up, especially in Europe, where privacy laws tend to be strong and nearly every country has a regulatory body. But Internet users have consistently shown a willingness to give up privacy in exchange for convenience and new online services that Google and other tech companies offer.

Google says it merged its myriad privacy policies in March 2012 for the sake of simplicity, and that the changes comply with European laws.

"There is a wider debate going on about personal data and who owns and controls personal data," said Colin Strong, a technology analyst with GfK. "The question is the extent to which consumers understand the value of their personal data and the extent that they are happy with the trade that they're getting."

Google and privacy: 6 EU countries take action
This Friday, Feb. 1, 2013, file photo shows Google CEO, Eric Schmidt, left, and French President Francois Hollande signing an agreement at the Elysee Palace in Paris. Google's new privacy policy is under attack from regulators in its largest European markets, who on Tuesday, April 2, 2013 brought legal action to try and force the company to overhaul practices they say let it create a data goldmine at the expense of unwitting users. (AP Photo/Philippe Wojazer, Pool-File)

Each of the six European states bringing legal action against Google has to make its own decision on how to handle perceived violations.

"No one is against Google's objective of simplicity. It's legitimate. But it needs to be accompanied by transparence for consumers and the ability to say yes or no," Isabelle Falque Pierrotin, head of French privacy regulator CNIL, said in a recent interview. "Consumers have the right to know how the information is being used and what's being done with it."

But regulations tend to lag technology, and the delay is more pronounced in a digital age when small bits of information can offer increasingly powerful - and lucrative - insights into the psyches of consumers or voters.

Proposed Europe-wide data protection legislation will take until at least 2015 to be fully implemented. In the meantime, said Falque Pierrotin, the national privacy regulators must ensure that European consumers are not vulnerable.

Johannes Caspar, a German data protection commissioner, said the company's policies were vague—it used the word 'may' dozens of times on a single page when describing its rights to data.

"Many users don't even know what is happening with their data and might worry that their private information is used to produce personality profiles of them," Caspar said.

Though consumers have been using the Internet despite the loss of some data privacy, they appear worried about the potential consequences. The European Commission says 70 percent of EU citizens are concerned about the misuse of their personal data; in the United States, about 65 percent are worried, according to a January 2011 Gallup poll.

In March, Google agreed to a $7 million fine to settle a 38-state investigation in the U.S. into software that intercepted emails, passwords and other sensitive information sent over unprotected wireless networks in neighborhoods worldwide. Google blamed an engineer who rigged a data-collection program for its online mapping service that then collected communications on Wi-Fi networks from early 2008 until the spring 0f 2010.

Earlier this year, Microsoft started an ad campaign linking Google to privacy concerns, hoping to cause defections to its own programs.

Two weeks ago, a European Parliament committee signed off on continent-wide legislation that would include a "right to be forgotten," requiring companies that operate online to show Internet users the personal information collected and, if requested, delete it. It's no simple request when information is gathered from countless computers and mobile devices and stored on servers all around the world.

In the meantime, it's unclear how far beyond fines the regulators are willing to go to impose their will on Google.

"I'm glad that the French are plucky and I'm glad that the French are pushing this," said Anthony Mullen, an analyst with Forrester Research who advises companies on emerging technologies. "I'm not sure that Google thinks that French regulators have teeth."

Falque Pierrotin acknowledged Tuesday that the fines were comparatively small, but said she expected the coordinated action to catch Google's attention and force it to make some necessary changes.

"Our objective is not to fine or to punish," she said. "Our objective is that Google be in compliance."

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User comments

Apr 02, 2013
Eric Schmidt is a member in a fascism circle, so is Kaifu Lee, Sebastian Thrun, Angela Merkel, etc. who had involved into a series fascism crimes which had endanger human lives and in retaliation against victims; so far fascism they had produced into our lives still prevails;
Starting from Gabriele Scheler's atrocity case on Stanford campus [Stanford Police Case Number: IR #04-111-0335;Victim: Peter Cao; Criminal Suspect: Gabriele Scheler;] there follows a series crimes in which Sebastian Thrun, Eric Schmidt, Angela Merkel, etc. and people associated with them had involved (e.g. Thrun's student David Stavens had gone to police and file false accusation on me on behalf of Thrun's side, and Eric Schmidt had threatened my life with the death of Stanford student May Zhou and later Schmidt had involved into an unsuccessful plotted murder on me as well);

Apr 02, 2013
--- Believe me, the damage to a person's life would be much worse and last forever out of egregious miscarriage of justice from certain malicious officers (in my case ZZZ/YYY/VVV, is VVV from FBI?), than from those criminals (in this case Gabriele Scheler, etc.) who had originally committed crimes on that person; you don't want to have such a horrible experience; it'll molest your whole life;
--- All tragedies in this case are caused by the miscarriage of justice from certain malicious officers; I am sure that until the date Gabriele Scheler's case completely clarified at authorities, which officers ZZZ/YYY/VVV had tried to prevent from happening, such malicious officers would install more and more tragedies into our lives; When we clarify the case, we will see;

Apr 02, 2013
--- Who are officers in charge of Gabriele Scheler's accusations ZZZ/YYY/VVV? they are the actual crime producers and time to clarify the case and end the dire consequences from their miscarriage of justice, and have them take the responsibilities; Would anyone like to live under the jurisdiction of such malicious and cowardice officers?

Apr 02, 2013
Since Eric Schmidt lost his title of CEO in 2011 because of his involvement into a series of fascism crimes which had endangered human lives, Google has been besieged by powers from a fascism circle for years. Powers from this fascism circle had since then tried to reinstall Eric Schmidt's control power over Google, and they had set up several coups in the past but without success.

The front figures in this fascism circle: Eric Schmidt, Sebastian Thrun, a criminal suspect Gabriele Scheler [Stanford police case number: IR #04-111-0335], certain malicious officers who's miscarriage of justice ZZZ/YYY/VVV (is VVV from FBI?), and more recently, Kaifu Lee(who had ensued legal battle when he betrayed Microsoft to join Google in 2005, and who had abandoned Google to start his own business, soon after he could take away all the Google stocks in 2009, a really treachery type;) and most of all, on 2012 Forbes List, the most powerful woman in the world, Angela Merkel, etc;

Apr 02, 2013
Would powers of this fascism circle repeat their plot to set up coups in Google in favor of this fascism circle again, as they had tried but failed before? I bet they would, but they would fail again;

My advice to powers in this fascism circle: stop playing tricks or you will always loose, face the facts, clarify the case, and assume legal and moral responsibilities

Apr 02, 2013
Thrun was privileged by some tycoons in science field to take credit for works done by others; e.g., the person who had made primary contribution to the self-driving car project which built-up fame for Thrun, is a Ph.D. from Carnegie Mellon University, but his name disappeared later on while Thrun takes all the credit for the self-driving car project;

I believe the same ones who privileged Thrun to take credit for works done by others are also the ones who had supported fascism crimes associated with Thrun which had endangered human lives and molested my life for years;

Apr 02, 2013

Sebastian Thrun had partially left Stanford because of his involvement into fascism crimes which had endangered human lives;

I have had horrible experience with Sebastian Thrun and my life has been cursed and molested by powers behind Sebastian Thrun without an end, while certain malicious officers tried to prevent the case from even being clarified while conspire victims in collateral with criminal suspects;(e.g. Thrun's student David Stavens had gone to police and file false accusation on me on behalf of Thrun's side, and Thrun's boss from Stanford Computer Science department had me tailed on street, peeked my emails, taped my phone calls, mobbed my friends to deceive me, etc. ... );

I believe that protecting human lives and their basic rights of living supersedes doing research or teaching or doing business; my contact:

Apr 02, 2013
It's nigh impossible to avoid being tracked and catalogued by Google because the services that Google provide (Google Analytics) are in use by third parties that don't tell they're passing data to Google.

Even if you've never used Gmail or even Google search, Google has tracking data on you because you've visited websites that are affiliated with Google, or simply use their free tracking services to keep count on the visitors.

Of course you can turn off javascript in your browser to block Google Analytic, at the expense of crippling your web experience.

To understand the scope of the problem, according to Alexa, 49.95% of the top million websites use Google Analytics. Literally every other page you visit tells Google that you've been there.

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