Europe Continues to Challenge Google on Privacy

The Netherland’s data protection agency said Google is facing a massive fine of up to 15 million euros ($18.5 million) if the search giant fails to end what the agency argues is a violation of Internet users’ privacy. The Dutch Data Protection Authority (DPA) says Google is failing to uphold basic European tenets of privacy for citizens through browsing history and location information that targets users with customized ads. The Battle for Privacy Europe, unlike the United States, pushed forward with efforts to stem the growing power of the search giant this year. The DPA gave the company through February to handle the request and change its policies on collecting data from web users. The current fight stems from privacy guidelines introduced in 2012. In the intervening two years, France, Germany, Britain, Italy, Spain and now the Netherlands put Google under investigation for failing to meet those new standards. “This has been ongoing since 2012 and we hope our patience will no longer be tested,” said Jacob Kohnstamm, chairman of the Dutch DPA. At issue is Google’s data crawling from searches online, via email and third-party tracking, or “cookies,” and customized advertising, which European nations are hoping to curtail. “This combining occurs without Google adequately informing the users in advance and without the company asking for consent. This is in breach of the law,” the DPA said. In order to comply with the new regulations, Google must tell users of actions that target personal data and inform users of how the search giant plans on using the information. Google must also garner consent from users to target ads. Google shies away from such actions, arguing that is an infringement on freedom of speech and the ability to search all information available. Right to be Forgotten This is not the only battle between Google and European nations. Earlier this year, the European Union passed the “Right to be Forgotten” directive, allowing users to request certain site are removed from search results. The “Right to be Forgotten” ruling from the European Court of Justice (ECJ) took effect over the summer and the backlash over links removed sparked controversy over Internet searches. At the initial center of the fight with Europe, Google delisted many suspect web pages, including an article from “The Guardian.” The article is now back online, as Google faced a lot of backlash from perceived manipulation of the requests. Google Chief Legal Officer David Drummond criticized the ruling but said they would continue to follow it and take down links as part of the “right to be forgotten.” “When it comes to determining what’s in the public interest, we’re taking into account a number of factors,” Drummond wrote, also saying they weren’t taking down pages relating to politicians, celebrities, or other public figures. This supports the ECJ ruling that states the ruling should only affect private citizens and Drummond claimed they’d be checking sourcing before removing links as well. He also argued Google plans to look at whether a certain page removal request “involves political speech; questions of professional conduct that might be relevant to consumers; the involvement of criminal convictions that are not yet ‘spent’; and if the information is being published by a government. But these will always be difficult and debatable judgments.” Europe vs. Google Could Determine the Future of the Internet Privacy concerns and online security are firmly at the center of technology and Internet discussions. The battle between Europe and Google should be one of the most important Internet issues to watch going forward. For Google and its supporters, Europe is infringing on freedom of speech vis-à-vis the Internet, but regulators and the European Court see things differently and are continuing to put pressure on the world’s largest tech companies. Many experts and tech workers are watching to see how the top brass at Google deal with these crises. With so much of our private data stored electronically, ensuring who controls and makes policy decisions is the new battlefront. For Google, customized ads and search data are vital to their revenue stream, but for citizens whose information is used and published online, more strict regulation is desirable. In Europe, the future of the Internet is playing out, in courtrooms and in public opinion. Image by Mark Knol/Flickr

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Joseph Mayton is a long-time journalist, having covered Middle East conflicts for a decade. He now lives in San Francisco and focuses on the intersection of technology and society.

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