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 There’s nothing society loves more than some good old righteous indignation, especially when it comes to our personal privacy. We react with outrage when the government collects data from our phones. We all signed up for the Do Not Call Registry, and we get angry when we still get telemarketer calls. We pretend we don’t want our data collected online—pretend because, as long as the service is free, we’ve shown we’ll willingly trade privacy for reduced-price or free digital services.
The Numbers Don’t Add Up
According to a recent study from the Pew Research Center, 80 percent of American adults surveyed worry about businesses accessing the data they share on the site, and 70 percent are concerned about the government accessing that same data. Yet despite these concerns, Facebook still has 864 million active users per day, and 1.3 billion active users per month, so people are still doing a lot of sharing. And that’s despite documented instances of legitimate privacy concerns, not tin foil hat paranoia.
The study also found 61 percent of Americans disagree with the notion that increased access to personal information makes online services more efficient. Even so, 55 percent agree they’re willing to share personal information in exchange for free access to online services, like social media. As many Internet and media experts have noted, when we use free online services in exchange for advertising, we are the product being sold.
Putting Our Mouth Where Our Money Isn’t
What a Tangled World Wide Web We Weave
If online services aren’t likely to change the way they handle our personal information, then we’ll have to change our online behavior. Over 60 percent of survey respondents say they’d like to do more to protect their information online, but only 24 percent say it’s easy to be anonymous online. An editorial in “The Guardian” speculates that some of us want to blame it on “our old friend Tina (There Is No Alternative),” that we’ve simply accepted that a lack of privacy is a price we have to pay for online services.
It’s easy to see why actually changing behavior is difficult when our Gmail password now logs us into our YouTube and Google+, accounts, and many third-party sites now use and sometimes even require a Facebook profile for account signup or commenting. The more the online services we use become intertwined, the less likely it is that we’ll abandon one because of how it will affect our use of the others. Pew indicates that 91 percent of people surveyed believe consumers aren’t in control of how their online personal data is collected and used, but 88 percent believe it would be “very difficult” to remove information about them online. Unlike Japan and Europe, America doesn’t have “right to be forgotten” laws. Should we?
What We Can Do About It
If we want to change how online services handle our personal information, we have to change our online behavior. If Google really bothers us, try an alternative like DuckDuckGo that doesn’t track our browsing history. If we don’t like how Facebook handles our information, we need to be selective in the information we provide. If we show, not tell, these online services that we value our privacy, they’ll begin to value it as well.
Perhaps the only thing worse about worrying about our online information is worrying about it over a slow connection. Enter your zip code below to find other Internet plans available in your area.
Image by lsengardt/Flickr