Stop your snooping, European regulators tell Google

Privacy watchdogs have united in an unprecedented attack on the way the search giant collects information on its users

That Google likes to keep things simple is apparent from its spartan home page: a logo, a text box for search queries, two buttons to process queries, and an unobtrusive strip of links to the internet behemoth’s email, maps and other services along the top. Links along the bottom connect you to the company, and up in the top right-hand corner there’s a button to sign in to your Google account.

It was in this minimalist spirit that Google decided to overhaul its privacy policies last year. In a post on the company’s official blog in January last year its head of privacy, Alma Whitten, explained that despite “trimming out policies in 2010, we still have more than 70 (yes, you read right … 70) privacy documents covering all of our different products. This approach is somewhat complicated.”

So Google said it was rolling out a new “main policy that covers the majority of our products.…What does this mean in practice?… In short, we’ll treat you as a single user across all our products, which will mean a simpler, more intuitive Google experience,” Ms Whitten wrote.

There’s that word – simple – again. But this week, regulators from no fewer than six European countries (Britain, Germany, France, Italy, Spain and the Netherlands) said they weren’t sure that the policy was simple enough. (Ms Whitten, incidentally, stepped down from her post just ahead of the European announcement, in what has been described, simply, as an unrelated move.)

The unprecedented joint action came after an investigation led by the French watchdog CNIL, which found shortcomings in the search engine giant’s privacy regime. Last year, in a letter to Larry Page, Google’s co-founder and chief executive, and signed by CNIL and its European counterparts, the regulators said: “Google empowers itself to collect vast amounts of personal data about internet users, but Google has not demonstrated that this collection was proportionate to the purposes for which they are processed. Moreover, Google did not set any limits to the combination of data nor provide clear and comprehensive tools allowing its users to control it.”

What is the risk for the search engine, which has been working with regulators to resolve the concerns over the last year? Financially, it hardly merits a mention. While the joint announcement was billed as a “showdown”, the eventual fine, if indeed there is a fine, would barely make a difference to the company, whose revenues hit $50bn last year. CNIL, for example, has the right to impose a fine of up to €300,000 – or what Google earns in a few minutes. Any penalties, then, are unlikely to force Google cut back on the free lunches it offers its employees. 

More damaging for the business, which maintains that its “privacy policy respects European law and allows us to create simpler, more effective services”, would be the negative publicity, and the possible concerns it creates in users’ minds. Only last month, the company agreed to cough up $7m to settle a multi-state US investigation into the interception of private information as its Google Maps vehicles drove around gathering images for its Street View service. The company blamed a rogue engineer, and did not admit any wrongdoing in the matter.

Worries, meanwhile, are also growing about the possible privacy implications of another Google product, one that hasn’t even been released yet.

In grand Google tradition, the Google Glass is a simple gadget: a hands-free device shaped like a pair of spectacles. A visor in the wearer’s line of sight displays the interface. Earlier this year, Google’s co-founder Sergey Brin was spotted on the New York subway wearing a prototype. The device will respond to voice commands, and come equipped with a camera, meaning that you can be sitting in a coffee shop in downtown Mountain View, near the search engine’s headquarters, say, wearing a Google Glass, looking as if you’re doing nothing more than sipping a skinny cappuccino when you are, in fact, videoing your surroundings. Or so it seems after viewing the snippets of information that the company has released about the project.

Rivals, meanwhile, are swinging into action as the headlines add up, with Microsoft is running an ad campaign based on the privacy worries surrounding Google. The adverts, which began airing before the European announcement, are accompanied by a website (www.scroogled.com) which is meant to lure users to Microsoft’s Outlook email service by highlighting what the campaign says are problems with the way Google treats the privacy of GMail users. It highlights the concerns and not-so-subtly asks: “Have you been Scroogled?”

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Recruitment Genius: Software Development Manager

£40000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Ashdown Group: Product Manager - (Product Marketing, Financial Services)

£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager - Marke...

Recruitment Genius: Compliance Assistant

£13000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Pension Specialist was established ...

Ashdown Group: Market Research Executive

£23000 - £26000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Market Research Executive...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee