Google: the search for privacy

EU challenge to Google over data use begs wider questions as volume of digital information booms

Nick Johnson

In a sector driven by innovation, no chief executive worth his salt would pull the plug on research and development, yet some may argue that is part of what European data protection authorities asked Google’s Larry Page to do when they wrote to him recently, challenging the Google privacy policy introduced in March.

Their letter and report set out a shopping list of things the regulators want to see changed in the policy, which sees data from around 60 Google products treated under the same terms. They say the terms allow excessive data capture and retention, fail to give adequate detail as to how data will be used and allow inappropriate combination of data across services. Among other things, they say Google should not be able, without user consent, to integrate data from across its services for certain purposes including product development.

This is the first time data protection authorities from all EU member states have acted together to challenge a business in this way. Other regulators, including those in Canada and some Asian countries, have thrown their weight behind the investigation. Collectively, they have made it clear they expected a lot more dialogue and engagement with the company before it went ahead with the changes. They have given Google four months to put its house in order.

But do consumers feel as strongly as regulators about Google using their personal data to develop new applications, and are Google’s interests really so at odds with those of its users? Is there an argument that European data authorities are interpreting proportionality and data controllers’ interests too narrowly, particularly in the context of sophisticated and popular free services such as Gmail, Google Search, Google Maps and YouTube?

We commissioned Ipsos MORI recently to research European consumers’ attitudes to data exploitation. This showed that only 10 per cent of UK consumers would be uncomfortable with a company taking data they had made available and using it to improve service. Elsewhere in Europe, the proportion was even lower – in Italy only 5 per cent said they would be unhappy. This does not mean consumers do not expect some transparency, but generally it appears people are comfortable accepting a level of data exploitation where there is a corresponding benefit.

The question then is whether Google’s interests in combining data innovation purposes could be seen as legitimate for processing, or whether they will always be over-ridden by the interests of the rights and freedoms of the ‘data subject’.

All this should be seen against the backdrop of an exponential increase in the volume, velocity and variety of data processing. According to IBM, 90 per cent of all data in the history of the world has been created in the past two years.

The challenge for data regulators and digital businesses alike is to develop appropriate ways to allow that morass of information to be used for the benefit of consumers while respecting their rights and expectations.