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EU data-protection authorities launch joint action against Google

The search engine giant may be fined up to $760m.

Data-protection authorities of Germany, France, Italy, Spain, the UK, and the Netherlands have launched a joint action against the Google for violating the European Union privacy rules.

The joint action is the first co-ordinated and formal procedure by EU member countries against a single company on privacy.

Currently, the European authorities can impose only fines below €1m. However, the new EU privacy rules, expected to be approved by the end of 2013, could allow the authorities to inflict on companies penalties up to 2 per cent of their global annual turnover.

Google may be fined up to $760m, based on its 2011 revenues.

The move comes five months after a probe led by the French administrative authority CNIL, which concluded that Google had failed to give users adequate information about how their personal data were being used across its multiple platforms, reported the Financial Times.

Citing that its privacy policy respected European law, Google, in a statement, said: “We have engaged fully with the data-protection authorities involved throughout this process, and we’ll continue to do so going forward.”

Citing the move as unrelated to actions by the EU regulators, Google argued that its new privacy terms combine 60 former policies into one for all its customers.

Viviane Reding, EU commissioner for justice, said: “It is good to see that six national data-protection authorities are teaming up to enforce Europe’s common data-protection rules. I am confident that the European Parliament and the EU member states will strengthen Europe’s enforcement tools substantially in the course of this year.”

EU privacy officials have also criticised Google for lobbying the US government to liberalise new privacy laws being considered by Brussels.

Meanwhile, Google confirmed that its privacy director Alma Whitten was leaving after nearly three years in the role. Lawrence You, a member of Google’s privacy team, will replace Whitten.

In 2010 Google admitted that its StreetView cars had been recording data from the unprotected WiFi networks of homeowners, for which it paid CNIL a €100,000 fine.

Nick Pickles, director of Big Brother Watch, told the Financial Times: “Google has repeatedly put profit ahead of user privacy ... It is essential regulators find a sanction that is not just a slap on the wrists and will make Google think twice before it ignores consumer rights again.”

The California-based technology company has faced severe criticism for its privacy policy when it merged customer data held across its various services such as Gmail and YouTube. Google is also fighting EU competition authorities over the prominence of its own products in Google search results.