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: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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