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.

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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