Possibility of imposing fines or restrictions on operations across the entire 27-country European UnionBritain's Information commissioner launches formal investigation
Comes as Google's
privacy director, Alma Whitten, steps down
14:56 GMT, 2 April 2013
15:25 GMT, 2 April 2013
Google is facing legal action across Europe as regulators try and force 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 today 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.
Google is facing legal action across Europe as regulators try and force the company to overhaul practices they say let it create a data goldmine at the expense of unwitting users
WHAT IS DATA BUNDLING
The current row revolves around Google's decision to pool of anonymous user data across Google services.
For Google, this is a big advantage when selling online ads.
Google and other large internet
groups like Facebook provide free services to consumers and earn money
from selling ads that they say are more closely targeted than
traditional TV or radio campaign
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 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.
Britain's Information Commissioner’s Office today confirmed a formal investigation would go ahead in the UK.
'The ICO has launched an investigation into whether Google’s revised
'The action follows an initial investigation by the French data
protection authority CNIL.
'Several data protection authorities across
Europe are now considering whether the policy is compliant with their
own national legislation.
'As this is an ongoing investigation it would not be appropriate to comment further.'
Successful legal action would hurt Google's image and could block its ability to collect such data until it addresses the regulators' concerns.
Privacy campaigners called for tough action.
'Just because Google is a big business does not put it above the law.
'The company has ignored the authorities and refused to make any meaningful changes to how it collects sand uses people’s data.
'Consumers are increasingly concerned about how their data is being used and it is essential that those breaking the law are properly punished.
'It is essential regulators find a sanction that is not just a slap on the wrists and will make Google’s think twice before it ignores consumer rights again.'
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.
'We have engaged fully with the DPAs involved throughout this process, and we'll continue to do so going forward,' added the spokesman.
'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.'
A Google data center in Douglas Country, Georgia, where the firm holds vast amounts of data on its user's behavior
News of the action comes as Google's
privacy director, Alma Whitten, steps down from her job. Ms Whitten was
appointed as the search giant's first privacy director in 2010,
following a series of mistakes by Google that had led to user data being
'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.'
Each of the six European states bringing legal action against Google has to make its own decision on how to handle perceived violations.
But regulations tend to lag technology, analysts say, and the delay is more pronounced in a digital age when small bits of information can offer increasingly powerful insights into the psyches of consumers or voters.
'Technology takes two steps forward and law, if we're lucky, can take them one step back,' said Anthony Mullen, an analyst with Forrester Research who advises companies on emerging technologies.
GOOGLE'S LONG RUNNING PRIVACY SAGA
Google's battle has been running since 2011 – here are the key moments:
Feb. 28: France's regulator says a preliminary analysis finds that Google's new policy appears to violate European data-protection rules.
April 13: The Federal Communications Commission fines Google $25,000, saying the online search leader “deliberately impeded and delayed” an investigation into how it collected data while taking photos for its Street View mapping feature.
April 26: Google disputes the FCC's characterization of that probe and says the FCC was the party that took its time. Google argues that the 17-month inquiry would have gone much more quickly if the FCC hadn't dawdled so much. Google says it accepted the fine to close the case.
Aug. 9: The FTC announces that Google has agreed to pay a $22.5 million fine to settle allegations that it broke a privacy promise by secretly tracking the online activities of millions of people who use Apple's Safari web browser.
March 12, 2013: Google says it has agreed to a $7 million fine to settle a probe over Wi-Fi data collection connected to its canvassing for street-level photo. The settlement covers 38 states and the District of Columbia.