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France leads EU warnings over Google’s new privacy policy

Text by Tony Todd

Latest update : 2012-03-01

Internet giant Google has rolled out changes to its privacy policy that will help the company consolidate user data for targeted advertising. France has warned that the move may be in breach of European law.

Google pushed ahead Thursday with its controversial new privacy policy despite a warning by the European Union, led by France, that the company could find itself in breach of European law.

The California-based Internet search and advertising giant announced in January that it was streamlining its privacy policy.

Google will now offer a single unified policy to cover its range while pooling usage information and user profiles, a move, it says, will improve its services. The changes apply from Thursday March 1 and affect all of Google’s millions of users. Until today, each of its 60-odd products, including YouTube, Google Docs and the popular Gmail service, had separate privacy policies and did not aggregate data collected from users.

If Google considers its users will enjoy a better service, the changes also reflect issues central to its business model.

The vast majority of the company’s revenues come from advertising, which is carefully targeted to individual users. Combining data from across services will give a significant boost to Google’s task of getting the right ad in front of the right user.

So what’s the problem?

The CNIL

The CNIL describes itself as "responsible for ensuring that information technology remains at the service of citizens, and does not jeopardize human identity or breach human rights, privacy or individual or public liberties.

It aims to:

  • Prevent illegal means of data collection
  • Insure that the aims of data files are explicitly stated by companies
  • Insure that users are properly informed of their rights
  • Prevent decisions about individuals being made by a computer

On February 27 French regulator the Commission Nationale de l'Informatique et des Libertés (CNIL) wrote to Google warning that French and EU authorities were “deeply concerned about the combination of personal data across services” and that there were “strong concerns about the lawfulness and fairness of such processing and its compliance with European data legislation.”

“Instead of improving transparency, the way the new rules are formulated and the possibility of combining data from different services raises concerns and questions about Google's real intentions,” the letter continued.

The CNIL asked Google to delay the changes – a request that was refused.

The CNIL warning comes amid the European Commission's effort to toughen outdated data protection rules.

Proposed changes include forcing Internet companies such as Google, as well as its other giants such as the popular social networking site Facebook, to ask users’ permission to store and sell their data to third parties.

The European Commission is also looking at enforcing a “right to be forgotten”, which would force online services to delete all user information if requested to do so.

Google pushes on anyway

On Tuesday Google’s global privacy counsel Peter Fleischer responded to the CNIL letter on the company’s public blog, saying that user privacy remained a top priority. “As we’ve said several times over the past week, while our privacy policies will change on March 1st, our commitment to our privacy principles is as strong as ever,” he wrote. “We are confident that our new simple, clear and transparent privacy policy respects all European data protection laws and principles.”

In 2011 the CNIL fined Google 100,000 euros for collecting private data, in the form of photographs of individuals and of private property, as part of its controversial Street View service.

Google remains one of the dominant online forces in Europe, where it has more than 80% of the search engine market and 30% of the mobile phone market with its Android platform. Globally, it controls 40% of online video through services like YouTube and more than 40% of Internet advertising.

Date created : 2012-03-01

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