In a letter to chief executive Larry Page, EU regulators have warned that Google “empowers itself to collect vast amounts of personal data about internet users” without showing that this “collection was proportionate”. The letter, obtained by Bloomberg News, also urges Google to “modify its practices when combining data across services” and make clear how it processes users’ personal information.
None of this is particularly surprising. For the past nine months, French data regulator CNIL has been working on behalf of the EU to compile a list of Google’s potential privacy misdemeanours. The investigation has coincided with efforts by Google to combine data across its various services in order to improve its offering to users and advertisers.
To help achieve this, the company consolidated 60 individual privacy policies for Google-owned sites into a single policy earlier this year. The EU is concerned that this catch-all approach will result in sensitive data falling through the cracks, leading to serious privacy breaches.
However, while Google’s rather drastic shift in data policy was always likely to provoke a rebuke from regulators, it’s not clear what happens now. The investigation has not declared Google’s data practices illegal, but has instead set out 12 measures the company must put in place to comply with the EU’s concerns.
This suggests that Google will have some wiggle-room in this debate, allowing it to keep its new data framework intact while tinkering with certain aspects to ensure the regulators stay on-side. As Google’s big rival Facebook can attest, it’s possible to retain the initiative in privacy disputes by compromising at the right times.
Facebook would no doubt also agree, though, that constant gripes over privacy do the service no good, serving to worry users and unsettle the advertisers who are supposed to benefit from data mining in the first place.
In recent weeks Google has shown the huge potential of its offer to advertisers by launching the biggest ever branded YouTube channel and sealing tie-ups on Google+. But if Google continues to fall foul of regulatory authorities around the world, its data practices will start to look less like a solid platform for online advertising and more like shifting sand.
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