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Facebook and Google will soon have to tighten up their acts on privacy following new rules being drawn up by the European Union and US regulators.

On both sides of the Atlantic, officials are examining how social networking sites handle users’ personal data, while drawing up plans to protect surfers from the rapid expanse of social media, search engine and other web-based businesses.

At a seminar in Brussels this week, Viviane Reding, the EU justice commissioner, highlighted the need for European citizens’ rights to be enforced in terms of data collection, regardless of where the data was collected.

“A US-based social network company that has millions of active users in Europe needs to comply with EU rules. There should be no exceptions for third countries’ service providers controlling our citizens’ data.”

Meanwhile over at the White House, the Obama administration said it plans to produce a privacy bill of rights for America consumers, to protect personal information collected by digital marketing firms.

However internet firms, who hitherto have enjoyed the ‘Wild West’ laws of the world wide web, are worried that that their advertising-driven business models, which rely on tracking and targeting consumers to maximise revenues will be eroded.

The Federal Trade Commission in the US is said to favour a ‘do-not -track’ system which would allow users to block sites from monitoring their online activity.

Under new proposals by the EU, antiquated data protection laws will also be revamped, allowing users to withdraw data held by companies when they delete their accounts, as a fundamental ‘right to be forgotten’.

 

Companies would also have to provide more information on what data they have collected from people and why.

“Any company operating in the EU market or any online product that is targeted at EU consumers must comply with EU rules,” said Reding.

Under the proposed new laws, National privacy watchdogs will also be given powers to investigate and engage in legal proceedings against non-EU data controllers, even in the US or outside Europe, however complex this may be to apply.

In January this year, Google was ordered by Spanish data protection authorities to remove links to more than 80 news articles mentioning people by name, claimed to be a violation of privacy. The case is now with Europe’s highest court.

Europe and the US have had vastly different policies on privacy issues, with the EU favouring a more regulatory approach, whilst the US tries to balance entrepreneurship and business needs.

However, while differing on philosophy, US privacy officials are now trying to close the gaps between the standards, by agreeing to offer a ‘do-not-track’ option on web browsers.

Companies like Microsoft and Mozilla have also announced that they will include do-not-track feature on Internet Explorer and Firefox.

Observers say that by agreeing to pass its own laws on privacy, the US may just secure the best deal for American companies, as it will be less expensive and less time consuming for US companies to handle European’s online data in the future.

However, the developing privacy landscape is one that both Google and Facebook are no doubt tracking closely.

 

 

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