EU Officials To Investigate Google

Google's privacy practices are drawing scrutiny by a growing number of regulators in Europe.

This week, officials in Britain, Germany, Italy, Spain and the Netherlands said they plan to investigate Google for changing its privacy policy. Earlier this year, the French privacy agency CNIL said that Google failed to satisfactorily respond to criticism of its new policy.

The criticisms date to last March, when Google revised its policy in a way that enables the company to combine data about signed-in users across a variety of platforms and services -- including Gmail, Android, and YouTube. People can't opt out of the data combination. Instead, the only way to prevent Google from using information across services is to access sites without signing in, or use different browsers for different purposes.

Google has always said that it intends to draw on the data in order to target people more precisely. The company also points out that the new policy doesn't allow it to collect any new data, only to draw on it in new ways.

But EU regulators say Google isn't giving consumers enough information about its practices. The authorities also want Google to give users more control over how the company combines data about them.

Google said in a statement that its privacy policy “respects European law.” The company also said it has “engaged fully” with the EU authorities and will continue to do so.

The European regulators' complaints highlight the stark differences in privacy law between the EU, which has relatively broad data protection policies, and the U.S., where companies more or less are allowed to use any data they gather in order to serve ads. (Of course, some U.S. companies have adopted privacy policies that limit their ability to collect and use data. But companies by and large do so voluntarily.)

Still, actions by EU regulators could end up having a worldwide impact. Consider, EU regulators previously criticized Google -- and other search engines -- for retaining IP logs for longer than six months. While the companies didn't stop retaining the information altogether, they did agree to shed them sooner than in the past.

Meanwhile, group of U.S. Web users are still attempting to proceed with a class-action lawsuit against Google for changing its policy. Last year, U.S. Magistrate Judge Paul Grewal in San Jose, Calif. dismissed the lawsuit on the ground that the consumers didn't suffer any injury. But the dismissal was without prejudice, meaning the consumers could rewrite their complaint and try again. They did so two weeks ago.

In the new complaint, one of the consumers who's suing alleges that Google's new privacy policy cost him money by spurring him to replace his Android phone with an iPhone. The judge hasn't yet ruled whether the case can proceed.

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