Google faces EU crackdown over privacy violations

January 2012's privacy policy comes under fire.

The EU is considering a "co-ordinated crackdown" on Google after it ignored requests from regulators to delay the imposition of its new privacy policy until they had cleared it for compliance with data protection law.

The policy was announced last January (though it only came into effect in March), and allowed Google to mix personal data from all its subsidiaries, particularly Youtube, which had hitherto been cordoned off. The new internal user profiles this enabled the company to create are of great value to advertisers, but the company also trumpeted the improved experience it could offer users, saying at the time:

Our privacy policies have always allowed us to combine information from different products with your account — effectively using your data to provide you with a better service. However, we’ve been restricted in our ability to combine your YouTube and search histories with other information in your account. Our new privacy policy gets rid of those inconsistencies so we can make more of your information available to you when using Google.

The EU didn't agree, and asked the company to hold off implementation until it had held an investigation on whether it complied with EU data protection law. The probe, which began in mid-March, finally reported back in October, and found that the new policy did indeed breach EU law. The French data protection commission, the CNIL, which led the investigation, had recommended a number of changes, such as easier opt-outs for advertising. But the company insists its policy already complies with EU law.

As a result, the CNIL is organising a co-ordinated response to Google, since, as the head of the commission told the Wall Street Journal on Monday, "we're better armed when we speak with one voice than when each country takes its own steps".

The EU hasn't played the situation brilliantly. The fact that its investigation only reported back in October, over six months after it began, is proof of severe regulatory overreach; and it would have been an unnecessary and unsupportable restraint on Google to have asked it to hold off on what was a major business decision for that entire period.

Nonetheless, Google appears to be continuing a trend amongst Silicon Valley — exemplified by Facebook in its squabble with the Irish data protection commission over facial recognition data — of assuming that the regulations of the countries it operates in don't apply to it. The EU has considerably stricter data protection laws than the US, and while some of them, such as the ill-fated cookie directive, are worthy of being ignored, others provide genuine protection for the consumer.

Google maintains that "we have engaged fully with the CNIL throughout this process and will continue to do so," but the EU's privacy group will vote on whether to take action against the company at the end of February.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Something is missing from the Brexit debate

Inside Westminster, few seem to have noticed or care about the biggest question mark in the Brexit talks. 

What do we know about the government’s Brexit strategy that we didn’t before? Not much, to be honest.

Theresa May has now said explicitly what her red lines on European law and free movement of labour said implicitly: that Britain is leaving the single market. She hasn’t ruled out continuing payments from Britain to Brussels, but she has said that they won’t be “vast”. (Much of the detail of Britain’s final arrangement is going to depend on what exactly “vast” means.)  We know that security co-operation will, as expected, continue after Brexit.

What is new? It’s Theresa May’s threat to the EU27 that Britain will walk away from a bad deal and exit without one that dominates the British newspapers.

“It's May Way or the Highway” quips City AM“No deal is better than a bad deal” is the Telegraph’s splash, “Give us a deal… or we walk” is the Mirror’s. The Guardian opts for “May’s Brexit threat to Europe”,  and “May to EU: give us fair deal or you’ll be crushed” is the Times’ splash.

The Mail decides to turn the jingoism up to 11 with “Steel of the new Iron Lady” and a cartoon of Theresa May on the white cliffs of Dover stamping on an EU flag. No, really.  The FT goes for the more sedate approach: “May eases Brexit fears but warns UK will walk away from 'bad deal’” is their splash.

There’s a lot to unpack here. The government is coming under fire for David Davis’ remark that even if Parliament rejects the Brexit deal, we will leave anyway. But as far as the Article 50 process is concerned, that is how it works. You either take the deal that emerges from the Article 50 process or have a disorderly exit. There is no process within exiting the European Union for a do-over.  

The government’s threat to Brussels makes sense from a negotiating perspective. It helps the United Kingdom get a better deal if the EU is convinced that the government is willing to suffer damage if the deal isn’t to its liking. But the risk is that the damage is seen as so asymmetric – and while the direct risk for the EU27 is bad, the knock-on effects for the UK are worse – that the threat looks like a bad bluff. Although European leaders have welcomed the greater clarity, Michel Barnier, the lead negotiator, has reiterated that their order of priority is to settle the terms of divorce first, agree a transition and move to a wider deal after that, rather than the trade deal with a phased transition that May favours.

That the frontpage of the Irish edition of the Daily Mail says “May is wrong, any deal is better than no deal” should give you an idea of how far the “do what I want or I shoot myself” approach is going to take the UK with the EU27. Even a centre-right newspaper in Britain's closest ally isn't buying that Britain will really walk away from a bad deal. 

Speaking of the Irish papers, there’s a big element to yesterday’s speech that has eluded the British ones: May’s de facto abandonment of the customs union and what that means for the border between the North and the South. “May’s speech indicates Border customs controls likely to return” is the Irish Times’ splash, “Brexit open border plan “an illusion”” is the Irish Independent’s, while “Fears for jobs as ‘hard Brexit’ looms” is the Irish Examiner’s.

There is widespread agreement in Westminster, on both sides of the Irish border and in the European Union that no-one wants a return to the borders of the past. The appetite to find a solution is high on all sides. But as one diplomat reflected to me recently, just because everyone wants to find a solution, doesn’t mean there is one to be found. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.