Google's privacy policy draws fire from Europe

Six European countries want the search giant to change its unified privacy policy. But that could have an impact on the services it offers

Google could be facing penalties and fines from across the Atlantic, as the search giant's failure to bring its policies in line with European privacy rules has prompted six nations to pursue enforcement actions against the company.

But Tuesday's legal maneuvering may have implications beyond Google's pocketbook. Services like the upcoming Glass computerized eyewear that depend on the breadth of information gathered by Google could be impacted by European opposition to the company's unified privacy policy. After all, it's that policy that makes such services possible.

Google introduced its unified privacy policy more than a year ago. The policy condensed more than 70 privacy policies governing assorted products into a single set of rules, allowing Google to collect user information into a single database. Google argues that such an approach not only lets it deliver better search results--for example, distinguishing between Jaguar the car and jaguar the animal--but also gives it the ability to deliver sophisticated calendar and travel information.

Six European nations--France, the United Kingdom, Spain, Italy, Germany, and the Netherlands--aren't so sure. They make up the European Commission's Article 29 Working Party, and they asked Google in October 2012 to make a number of changes to its unified privacy policy. Those changes included giving users more control over the data Google collects and modifying its collection tools to avoid excessive gathering of data.

The task force gave Google four months to clean up its privacy act. "After this period has expired, Google has not implemented any significant compliance measures," the group explained in a statement Tuesday. "Consequently, all the authorities composing the task force have launched actions on 2 April 2013 on the basis of the provisions laid down in their respective national legislation."

Impact on the United States

The hardline stance from Europe is hardly surprising, according to Jeff Chester, director of the Center for Digital Democracy in Washington, D.C. "Europeans don't see privacy just as a consumer issue," he said in an interview. "They see it as a civil-liberties issue."

And that's an issue that's likely to be felt on this side of the Atlantic. "The EU sets the baseline by which policymakers and advocates operate, so this is a major positive development that will ultimately benefit U.S. consumers," he added.

Google may disagree. The company was not immediately available for comment on the task force's action, but the search giant has been very vocal about how the data collection enabled by its unified privacy policy has benefited the services it offers. Still, Chester discounts the notion that the changes the EU wants to see in Google's privacy policy will diminish what it provides consumers. "Protecting privacy and generating revenues are compatible," he said.

"Google and Facebook and others will continue to make scads of money because we're all totally dependent on digital communications," he added. "But they're going to have to offer consumers a greater ability to make some decisions about their data."

The changes proposed by the EU task force "are not going to put a dent in any services whatsoever, but it will make Google play fairer," Chester said.

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