The European Union is working on stronger data protection rules to give Internet users more control over how search engines such as Google use their personal information.
EU officials are currently undergoing public consultations to revamp 15-year-old privacy laws. It is expected the laws would also promote higher standards for data protection globally.
“The protection of personal data is a fundamental right,” said Vice-President Viviane Reding, EU Commissioner for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship. “To guarantee this right, we need clear and consistent data protection rules. We also need to bring our laws up to date with the challenges raised by new technologies and globalisation.”
The EU framework for protecting personal data sets out to strengthen individuals’ rights so that they are clearly informed in a transparent way on how, why, by whom, and for how long their data is collected and used.
It also aims to reduce red tape for businesses and harmonise legislation across EU member states, and ensure high levels of protection for data transferred outside the EU by improving and streamlining procedures for international data transfers. It also maintains the EU should strive for the same levels of protection in cooperation with third countries and promote high standards for data protection at a global level.
The crackdown follows rising worries about web privacy issues as companies such as Google Inc, Facebook, Microsoft, and Yahoo collect more data about their users’ online habits, for commercial gain.
The UK Information Commissioner issued a statement this week, that Google breached its Data Protection laws when it collected personal data via its Street View cars, overturning an earlier decision that no data breach had occurred. The ICO said while it would not impose financial penalties on Google, it would focus instead on auditing Google’s data protection practices.
In a statement, the ICO said: “Google UK will be subject to an audit and must sign an undertaking to ensure data protection breaches do not occur again or they will face enforcement action.”
The U turn in Britain also followed Canada’s ruling that Google had also breached its privacy laws, and several calls by UK MPs that the ICO had failed to act when it should have done.
Robert Halfon, MP, argued in the UK House Of Commons that Google had cynically collected data for commercial gain, and had infringed privacy and civil liberties in doing so.
Google is also under investigation in Italy, France and Spain. However, the US last week dismissed its case on the matter, saying Google had satisfied its concerns by taking the necessary steps to address privacy issues.
In Australia, the Privacy Commissioner had earlier concluded its investigation into Google’s collection of WiFi data in July, but did not indicate to SmartHouse whether it would follow Britain’s lead in auditing Google’s data protection practices.
In Germany, Google has been under pressure from the German Government to allow its citizens to opt out of the StreetView services, before the service went live on 1 November. Some 244,000 citizens took up the option to remove their data.
According to Reuters, even before Google’s revelations, Street View had provoked complaints from people worried about themselves or their homes being captured on camera.
For example, one man was shown vomiting in the street and another leaving a sex shop.
Google now blurs the faces of people who appear in its images, and does allow users to report problems with captured images. The company also said it had tightened up its procedures to ensure that StreetView claims its images only show what people would normally see while walking or driving on roads, giving 360-degree views of urban areas. It is provided as a location service by Google, for people to orient themselves using mobile phones.