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French privacy agency looking askance at Google

Google privacy policies may violate European privacy laws

Technology trends and news by Steven Loeb
February 29, 2012 | Comments
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When Google unveiled it’s new privacy plan last month, it was billed as a way to streamline its privacy. Basically, the new policy was going to make privacy simpler and easier for the average user to understand.

The National Commission for Computing and Civil Liberties, a French privacy watchdog, sees it differently.

The agency announced this week that Google's new privacy policies appear to be violating the law, specifically the European Directive on Data Protection.

In a letter sent to Google CEO Larry Page on Monday, the CNIL accused Google of making the new privacy policy too complicated for experienced Internet users to fully understand, let alone the average consumer.

“The new privacy policy provides only general information about all the services and types of personal data Google processes," CNIL President Isabelle Falque-Pierrotin said, in the letter. "As a consequence, it is impossible for average users who read the new policy to distinguish which purposes, collected data, recipients or access rights are currently relevant to their use of a particular Google service.”

“Our preliminary investigation shows that it is extremely difficult to know exactly which data is combined between which services for which purposes, even for trained privacy professionals.”

Viviane Reding, the European Union’s Justice Commissioner, has called for Google to delay the implementation of the new policy, which is scheduled to go into effect tomorrow.

We reached out to Google for comment regarding the French agency's action. The company sent back this reply: "Our updated Privacy Policy will make our privacy practices easier to understand, and it reflects our desire to create a seamless experience for our signed-in users. We’ve undertaken the most extensive notification effort in Google’s history, and we’re continuing to offer choice and control over how people use our services. Of course we are happy to discuss this approach with regulators globally."

Earlier this week, Google’s chief privacy counsel, Peter Fleischer, wrote a letter back to the CNIL on Tuesday, in which he defended the policy, saying, “We are confident that our new simple, clear and transparent privacy policy respects all European data protection laws and principles."

He also made it clear that Google has no intention of delaying the policy, no matter what laws they are accused of breaking.

"We have notified over 350 million authenticated Google users and provided highly visible notifications on our home page and in search results for our non-authenticated users," he wrote. "To pause now would cause a great deal of confusion for users."

The CNIL, who, according to the New York Times, have the power to fine Google up to $400,000, also wrote that it will send Google a “full questionnaire regarding this matter as well as other related aspects of Google’s data processing activities before mid-March 2012." The CNIL also has the power to bring Google to court, but they will not be able to enforce any rulings in other European countries. 

The scuffle over Google's privacy comes at a time the Internet search kingpin is also seeing pressure from EU's competition authority and the U.S. Federal Trade Commission. The two authorities are investigating how Google ranks its search results.

This week, Jon Leibowitz, the chairman of the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) appeared on the C-SPAN show “Newsmakers" to discuss Google's privacy policies.

During the interview, Leibowitz said that, "consumers should have the right not to have their information collected…your computer is your property…people should have the right not to have their information collected particularly about sensitive issues." He also said that Google's policies are "very binary and somewhat brutal choice that they’re giving consumers…I can’t say much more and I’ll just leave it at that, but we’re aware.” Read excerpts here.  

In January, eight U.S. lawmakers sent a letter to Google expressing concerns that Google's consolidation of information would make it harder for consumers to make their data private.  

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