Google has 4 months to change privacy policy

Google has four months to make its privacy policy comply with requests from European Union data protection watchdogs or start facing the possibility of disciplinary action at a national level.

France’s Commission Nationale de l’Informatique, working on behalf of the EU’s 27 national data regulators, said on Tuesday it had found legal flaws with a new approach to user data that Google adopted in March.

Among CNIL’s concerns was the way the U.S. group combines anonymous data from users’ browsing histories across its services to better target advertising.

That led the national regulators to issue 12 recommendations for Google to bring its privacy policy into line, including better informing users on how data will be used, and setting precise periods for data to be retained.

Google global privacy counsel Peter Fleischer said the company would examine the results of the investigation, adding it remained confident its privacy policy respected EU law.

CNIL president Isabelle Falque-Pierrotin said regulators were prepared to talk to Google, adding: “If Google does not conform in the allotted time, we will enter into the disciplinary phase”.

Google can either negotiate with the regulators and change elements of its privacy policy or challenge their authority to impose changes in court. The data protection watchdogs that examined the privacy policy cannot rule on the legality of Google’s approach since they are not a court of law.

Some national data protection regulators including those in Belgium, France and the Netherlands have, in the past, imposed fines on companies that have breached rules. Such sanctions cannot be imposed EU-wide.

When Google was found to have broken data protection rules after its Street View cars collected unauthorized data on public wifi networks in 2010, it faced dozens of separate cases.

In that episode, Google was fined 100,000 euros ($129,000)by the French watchdog and the Netherlands threatened a 1 million euro fine if it did not change its policy.

Google’s new approach to data, which consolidated 60 privacy policies into one, allows the pooling of information collected on individual users across its services, including YouTube, Gmail and the Google+ social network. Users cannot opt out.

Jacob Kohnstamm, the Dutch data protection boss and head of the working group of EU data protection regulators, said it was the first time regulators had cooperated on an investigation.

“Since internet companies know no borders, it is indispensable that data protection work together,” he said.

Chris Watson, a lawyer at CMS Cameron McKenna LLP, said: “How the case turns out will be an important test case of Europe’s (EU) ability to enforce its point of view on online privacy”.

($1 = 0.7730 euro)

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Google has 4 months to change privacy policy