March 12, 2012

England, EU Critical of New Google Privacy Policy

While the political debate over Web privacy is just warming up in the US, a British watchdog group argues that Google´s recently revised privacy policy conflicts with the UK´s Data Protection Act.

At a conference held last Thursday in Westminster, England´s deputy Information Commissioner David Smith called Google´s new privacy terms “too vague.”

In what it insists was a change intended to streamline and personalize the user´s Internet experience,  Google´s new policy allows it to create a single dossier for each individual, harvesting and consolidating information on users from any of its 60 or so services, including Google+, Gmail and YouTube.

“The requirement under the UK Data Protection Act is for a company to tell people what it actually intends to do with their data, not just what it might do at some unspecified point in future,” said Smith.

“Being vague does not help in giving users effective control about how their information is shared. It´s their information at the end of the day.”

Smith is just one of a number of European politicians and bureaucrats to vocally criticize the new privacy policy. His French counterpart also requested that Google refrain from instituting the new terms until regulators had a chance to determine whether or not they are in line with national and European-wide regulations.

In florid language, the European Commissioner in charge of data security Viviane Redingsaid that Google was “sneaking away” with its users personal information.

She also went on to warn the California-based company that EU officials were not “playing games” with them.

For its part, Google has repeatedly pointed out that the new consolidated privacy policy replaces the former labyrinth of individual policies that used to govern each of its services. The end result, it says, is that concerned users now have a single, tremendously simplified privacy policy.

Moreover, the company also noted that users have numerous other options for getting informed about how their information is being used.

“The most important product-specific privacy explanations have been incorporated into our main privacy policy. And there are lots of ways to communicate more about our product-specific privacy practices without creating formal privacy notices,” said Google in a statement.

“For example, we use our privacy centre, help centre articles, in-product notifications, published FAQs and our good to know website to explain what information we collect and how we use it.”

In addition to the debate over its privacy policy, Smith says he is also concerned about Google´s possible exclusion from the so-called “right to be forgotten” legislation which would make it possible for users to demand that companies like Yahoo or Facebook permanently erase their Internet history, including photos, blog posts, etc.

While Smith believes that Google should also be subject to this rule, the company has thus far kept its hand clean by claiming that it is merely a “conduit” in the digital sharing of information.

“Google can´t just say ℠I´m just a messenger, I have no responsibility at all for the messages I carry´,” he told England´s Telegraph.
“Given their dominant role and their huge influence here they have a responsibility to ensure they operate in a fair and reasonable way.”

With a passion for privacy and an inveterate wariness of large corporations, European nations like England, France and Germany have for the most part already drawn the up a more rigid legal framework for Internet privacy practices. In the US, however, the debate is just warming up, and it remains to be see whether Americans will be willing to sacrifice the quality of their beloved Internet services for the sake of keeping their age, gender and browsing habits out of the hands of advertisers.


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