Google pressured to increase privacy in Europe

French and Spanish watchdog groups are pressuring Google to change the company's data privacy policy. 

AP Photo/Paul Sakuma
Google has come under fire in France and Spain because of its privacy settings for user data.

French and Spanish watchdog groups are putting more pressure on Google to increase users’ privacy protection in response to the company’s perceived  failure to comply with European data privacy standards. 

France’s data protection agency, CNIL, gave Google three months to change its privacy policies, threatening the company with a 150,000 Euro ($198,000) fine for violating the French Data Protection Act of 1979.

Spain’s data watchdog, AEPD, told Google it will be fined between 40,000 Euros and 300,000 Euros ($52,000 and $400,000) for violating privacy laws and storing large amounts of user data, according to a report by Reuters.

“By the end of July, all the authorities within the [EU data protection] task force will have taken coercive action against Google,” says CNIL president Isabelle Falque-Pierrotin, according to Reuters. 

In March of last year, Google announced that it would aggregate its more than 60 privacy policies into one, and combine user data from all Google services including YouTube, Google Blogger, and Google Plus. The European Union warned Google both before the new privacy settings went in to place and then later in October 2012. France and Spain claim that Google made no meaningful changes to its policy. 

Prior to this change, individuals’ Google search histories were maintained separately. Now, users’ click history, search preferences, and YouTube tastes are all stored together. The crux of the problem, according to the European agencies, is that Google does not allow for users to opt-out of these integrated profile settings.

Google’s ownership of such a robust set of information about its users has been especially concerning after the NSA’s PRISM surveillance program was exposed. Under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the NSA has the right to request data from foreigners who are perceived security threats to the United States. And as an American company, Google has to give up this information.

Sweden’s data protection authority recently ruled to ban the nation’s public sector from using Google's cloud service, signaling a possible new trend away from Google and toward nationally based online services across Europe.

Nathan Newman, a professor specializing in information law at New York University is skeptical that most Europeans will move away from Google. European courts have stronger privacy laws than the United States, and they have a greater propensity to mistrust data mining, he explains. But the penalties are far weaker than in the United States and Google already has a corner on the market.

“You do this stuff, you collect the data, and you figure out how much you have to apologize for it later,” Mr. Newman says. The small fines that France and Spain are threatening Google with are laughably small for the media giant, he says. And despite increasing European pressures, Google is unlikely to make any changes to the company’s data privacy policy anytime soon, Newman adds.

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