Europe to Google: Hold your Horses

Europe to Google: hold your horses
European privacy officials have demanded that Google put planned privacy policy changes on hold until they can check that the new rules comply with local laws.

The demand comes from the Article 29 Working Party. That’s not a legal organization in itself, but rather a group made up of the data protection authorities in each of the European Union’s member countries. The group itself doesn’t have enforcement powers, so this is more of a co-ordinated warning of potential individual action.

The new Google policy is set to take effect on March 1st and contains two main changes. Firstly, the existing collection of 70 separate policy documents, each covering an individual service, is to be reduced to 11. That will include one master policy that covers most services, with the remaining 10 requiring individual policies for legal reasons. Google says this change will make it easier for users to keep track of the way it behaves.

The second change is that Google is now claiming the right to treat all data it collects about a user from across its services as a single record. From a user perspective, this could mean for example that the contents of your Gmail messages influences the ads you see on YouTube, the clips you view on YouTube influences your autocomplete suggestions when searching, and the sites you visit most often could even influence your dictionary suggestions in Gmail.

Of course, this also means Google will have even more accurate and detailed information with which to sell advertising. It also potentially increases the risk of inappropriate data use according to privacy campaigners.

The changes have already prompted a hostile advertising campaign by Microsoft which effectively accuses Google of compromising user privacy for the sake of profit.

Although Google doesn’t have to take notice of the European request, and it seems unlikely it will delay the changes at this stage, it has said it’s happy to talk to authorities about its policies. Between European governments being particularly unhappy with the debacle of Google unintentionally collecting Wi-Fi data through its Street View work, and European Union officials proposing a major overhaul of online data protection laws including giving users the right to demand a company delete all data about them, now wouldn’t be a smart time for Google to pick a fight.