Google, Facebook May See Tougher Data Use Rules in Europe

By Todd R. Weiss  |  Posted 2013-01-09

Google, Facebook May See Tougher Data Use Rules in Europe

Internet giants like Google and Facebook may find more limits on what they can do with the personal information they collect from their customers if the European Union tightens regulations, according to a story from Reuters.

The leaders of several EU nations are continuing their push for stricter controls, and proposed rules would give users more control over personal data that is collected by companies through Web searches, use of online shopping sites and other interactions online, the story reported. The rules would then limit the sale of such data to advertisers and others, "especially when people are unaware their data is being used in such a way," Reuters reported.

"Users must be informed about what happens with their data," Jan Philipp Albrecht, a German member of the European Parliament, told Reuters. "And they must be able to consciously agree to data processing—or reject it."

Albrecht is proposing a new law to help consumers maintain direct control over what kinds of information that companies can collect from them and sell to others, the story reported. Similar efforts have been in the works in the EU for the last couple years.

At the same time, companies such as Facebook and Google, which collect and sell such data, have been fighting the restrictions in the EU, according to Reuters.

For consumers, such rules would likely be welcome, but Internet companies say they are concerned that it might harm their operations.

Though the discussion in the EU presently only pertains to Europe, experts in the United States say that what eventually happens in Europe regarding privacy could certainly impact consumers in this country as well.

"With what's happening in Europe now, I think that this is growing recognition that what people do online is still private information and that people should have a say over how their information is being used," Jeffrey Child, an associate professor in the School of Communication Studies at Kent State University, told eWEEK.

A similar backlash hasn't yet happened in the United States, said Child, but it could be imminent depending on what happens in Europe.

"One thing we know about privacy is that it definitely is a cultural variable," he said. "Different places do have different norms and practices that are important. In the U.S., the dot-com revolution happened in the Silicon Valley, and it advanced interaction on the Web," meaning that Americans could be more open to and accustomed to wider online use patterns and consequences, he said.

"Other places may have different expectations," said Child. "But I think this is a growing trend, that people are becoming more informed about how companies are using their personal information."

The problem is worse when companies use people's private preference data, collected through Websites and other services, without asking them, said Child.

Google, Facebook May See Tougher Data Use Rules in Europe

When Instagram tried to change some of its user data use policies unilaterally in December, a huge user backlash forced the company to reverse its plans.

That was a big win for consumers, said Child.

"I try to educate people to delete their browser cookies and other personal information" when using the Web, he said. "A lot of people are unaware that their information is being stored."

It's likely that some of the new pressure on user privacy being seen in Europe could eventually find its way to this side of the Atlantic Ocean, said Child. "They seem to be more inclined to enforce individual privacy rights there. I think that's great. I hope we see more of that in the U.S."

Justin Brookman, director of consumer privacy for the nonprofit public policy group the Center for Democracy and Technology, told eWEEK that the United States trails other nations around the globe in having general, overarching privacy laws for its citizens.

"The U.S. is really the oldest developed country in the world that doesn't have any detailed privacy laws," said Brookman. "We have a few statutes here and there."

Arguments have occurred in the United States for years that this country should have some basic privacy laws that would cover Internet-related scenarios involving data collection and use, he said.

Europe has had such laws since 1995, though they are often seen as high-level and vague, according to Brookman.

"No one really knows what they always mean, so there is a lot of uncertainty there," said Brookman.

That's why the EU is moving to correct them nowadays, trying to make them more concrete, he said. At the same time, some in Europe concede that the laws they do have aren't really very effective.

Whatever happens in the EU could ultimately affect the United States, he said, because some Europeans say they aren't happy that their own data is collected and used by companies in the U.S., where privacy rules are perceived to be more lax.

Some consider the United States to be a "Wild West" when it comes to consumer privacy rules, he said.

Eventually, the United States is going to have to have real and effective privacy laws, said Brookman.

"Who knows how soon they'll get here," he said. "There's going to have to be enough of a hue and cry. And even if we do get it, if law enforcement isn't aggressive with it, it won't really matter."

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