Europe to Google: Rewrite Privacy Policy or Face Sanctions

Peter Kramer/NBC/NBC NewsWire
European watchdogs worry about how Google tech, like the new Google Glass, collects data on private citizens.

U.K., Germany and Italy join France and Spain in demanding the Internet search giant change its practice of collecting data on their users.

BERLIN – Privacy watchdogs in the U.K., Germany and Italy have joined their colleagues in France and Spain in demanding that Google rewrite its privacy policy for the European market or face legal sanctions.

The move increases the pressure on the U.S. Internet search giant just over a year after Google unilaterally changed its privacy policy to allow it to unify the way it collects data from its users worldwide.

The move raised the hackles of European watchdogs, who fear Google’s handling of the vast amounts of personal data could violate European privacy laws.

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Britain’s Information Commissioner's Office says the new privacy policy raises "serious questions" about compliance with the U.K. Data Protection Act, which protects citizens' personal data. The office has given Google until Sept. 20 to recast it.

In Germany, privacy advocates have gone one step further. The head of the information protection office in Hamburg has begun formal administrative proceedings against Google, claiming the company’s new policy "violates the company's commitment to full transparency about the use and handling of the data.“

The equivalent watchdogs in France and Spain wrote to Google last month expressing similar concerns. French authorities threatened the company with fines if it did not comply.

European lawmakers have already censured Google for the way it collected Wi-Fi data while scanning European streets for its Street View mapping service. Google Street View trucks scooped up data including usernames, passwords and web traffic of thousands of people who were not informed that their information was being gathered.

More recently, Google has been implicated in the NSA’s Prism program, whereby the U.S. government collected information on users of several other big tech companies, including Microsoft and Apple.

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European authorities, like the U.S. counterparts, have also demanded Google clarify what data protection provisions it has in place for its new Google Glass system, which allows users to take pictures and videos using the head-mounted glasses, without onlookers knowing they are being recorded.

In a statement, Google denied its new policy violates European law.

"Our privacy policy respects European law and allows us to create simpler, more effective services,“ the company said. "We have engaged fully with the authorities involved throughout this process, and we'll continue to do so going forward."

A big question will be how far Europe is prepared to go in sanctioning Google. Any fines will have to be substantial if they are to convince the Internet giant to change its way of doing business in the European market.

The British authorities have said that if Google fails to comply with their demands to change its policy, the company will be considered in contempt of court. Theoretically, a contempt charge could mean a fine of up to $650,000 (£500,000) but that would require that the U.K. watchdogs prove Google’s policy directly harmed British citizens.