Google's new privacy laws

Google’s much-heralded new privacy rules came into effect on 1 March 2012.  They will allow the world’s largest search engine operator to aggregate individuals’ data across all its various sites, apparently in order to generate better-focused advertising and search results.

So far, so helpful?  Perhaps there’s nothing more to this than a desire to provide a better consumer experience, under the auspices of Google’s motto “Don’t be evil”.  But EU data protection authorities - led in large part by the French privacy watchdog CNIL - have announced an investigation into a possible breach of European data law. 

It is not possible to opt out of the new policy if you want to keep using Google's services (including Google search, Gmail, Google+ and YouTube), although users can avoid being tracked by opting to search anonymously or by logging out of Google services.  However, critics claim that both these options are deliberately not being made simple or smooth, in order to dissuade users from adopting them. 

Like many web-based businesses, Google would like to see restrictions on data use become more relaxed, in order to be able to sell more effective advertising and sponsored links.  Meanwhile, the EU is currently pulling in the opposite direction: take for example its recent new policy on cookies and the proposed right “to be forgotten” online. 

Some of this may stem simply from an EU mistrust of large US businesses with near-monopolies in their markets.  But it may also go deeper and be rooted in inherent cultural differences between the laissez-faire of Anglo-Saxon common law, and the more proscriptive approach of continental European “civil law” jurisdictions.  Add in the US constitutional right to freedom of speech, and it makes for a potent mix.  But this shouldn’t be categorised as simply an Old World v New World battle of cultures: US lawmakers have also voiced concerns to Google that the planned consolidation of user information endangers consumers' privacy.  And Japan's trade and industry ministry has warned Google not to flout Japan's privacy laws.

For the time being, Google has rejected EU requests to delay implementation of the new policy and has denied there is any risk of breaching European data protection laws and principles.  It is clearly heading for a showdown (it is already under investigation from EU and US competition authorities over how it generates search results) and it may see this as its opportunity to impose a “game-changer” on Europe.  Does the EU have the appetite and the ability to stand up to this challenge from the Internet’s dominant player? 

For advice or more information, contact Graeme Fearon.

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