February 18, 2013 8:13 pm

EU regulators step up pressure on Google

Google risks being sanctioned by European regulators before summer unless it radically changes its controversial privacy policies as the battle between the US search engine giant and EU data protection watchdogs intensifies.

European privacy regulators said on Monday that Google had yet to respond to concerns raised during a probe last year, which showed that the US group failed to provide its users with adequate information about how their data were being used.

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“European data protection authorities have noted that Google did not provide any precise and effective answers to their recommendations,” said CNIL, the French watchdog that led the probe and represents EU regulators on the Google case.

“In this context, the EU data protection authorities are committed to act and continue their investigations . . . they propose to set up a working group, led by the CNIL, in order to co-ordinate their repressive action which should take place before summer.”

European officials can impose fines below €1m but a new Commission proposal would give national watchdogs the power to fine companies up to 2 per cent of their worldwide annual turnover – in Google’s case that would come up to about $760m, based on its 2011 annual revenues.

Google has been under mounting pressure in Europe for its data protection policy. Jacob Kohnstamm, head of the Article 29 Working Party, which represents EU privacy authorities has criticised the increasingly aggressive attempts of US lobbyists on behalf of Google and Facebook to relax EU privacy laws.

Google has denied that it is not co-operating with EU regulators and said it had replied in January to concerns raised by CNIL’s probe in October.

“Our privacy policy respects European law and allows us to create simpler, more effective services,” said a Google spokesperson in Brussels. “We have engaged fully with the CNIL throughout this process, and we’ll continue to do so going forward.”

Google introduced sweeping changes last year to the terms and conditions of its privacy rules as part of an effort to better exploit the data of its hundreds of millions of users and deliver targeted advertising.

The new privacy “terms and conditions” allow Google to use a customer’s data from YouTube video viewing for other platforms of the group. The US tech group also says that the new rules will allow it to give its users a better service. For example, Google Now, a recently launched service, pushes out information related to traffic flows based on a user’s past searches or location information.

Civil liberties groups have expressed frustration with Google’s lack of action on addressing the regulators’ demands.

“It’s a big blow for consumers,” said Nick Pickles, director of privacy campaign group Big Brother Watch. “Here you have European regulators expressing clearly articulated concerns that Google was impinging on the fundamental rights of its citizens and consumers are still waiting for a satisfactory answer.”

“This situation needs a quick solution as it is very dangerous for consumers who are using their [Google’s] services every day without knowing whether they are legal and safe,” he added.

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