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Google hit with privacy complaints in 14 EU countries

Google hit with privacy complaints in 14 EU countries

Data Protection Authorities should immediately suspend changes to Google's terms of service, the complaints said

Google was hit by privacy complaints in 14 E.U. countries Tuesday over its new terms of service that allow user photos and comments in advertising.

Google started featuring the names and photos of users in so-called "shared endorsements" on Nov. 11. This means that if a user, for instance, follows a computer manufacturer on Google+, that user's name, photo and endorsement could show up in ads for that computer.

Those changes to Google's terms of service violate European data protection law, according to privacy advocate Simon Davies, who lodged the complaints.

"On the basis of my initial assessment it appears that the changes will substantially violate Data Protection law," he wrote in the complaint. He asked data protection authorities to investigate and seek the immediate suspension of the changes pending the outcome of the investigation.

His complaint was filed with the data protection authorities of Norway, Sweden, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Spain, Italy, Slovenia, Austria, Belgium, Germany, Lithuania, the Netherlands and Poland.

One of the problems with Google's changes is that when users signed up for a Google+ account they were not informed that in order to use other Google services in the future, their data would be used for commercial purposes outside the Google+ environment, Davies wrote, adding that this violates the principle of purpose limitation.

"The general position is that the ground rules shouldn't be changed half way through the match. Google acquired the data under one condition, and I'm asserting that it cannot change the purpose of that data after the fact," he said.

This goes for the shared endorsements policy but also for YouTube comments, he said. "Not only are users now required to disclose their identity in order to interact on YouTube, but they are, by default, liable to have those comments and views construed as product endorsements in a generally visible publicly and identifiable format," he wrote in the complaint. It would be difficult to imagine how Google could reasonably move data from a site such as YouTube to an open advertising platform when there is no mention made in its privacy policy of such a shift, he added.

Furthermore, Google's opt-out mechanism creates another substantial data protection issue, because opt-out mechanisms in principle do not deliver users' consent according to Europe's privacy watchdog the Article 29 Working Party, Davies said.

Users can opt out of the shared endorsements program in some countries. In Germany however, it seemed that the check box for the use of profile information in ads is unchecked by default for existing and newly created accounts, according to a test conducted by the office of the Hamburg Commissioner for Data Protection and Freedom of Information in October, after Google announced its terms of service changes but before they went into effect earlier this month.

Even though there was a default opt-out setting in Germany in October, Davies said he wanted to test the purpose limitation principle, so he filed his complaints with the authorities in Berlin and the Federal Commissioner for Data Protection and Freedom of Information.

While the complaint focuses primarily on the shared endorsements policy, it is also relevant to a number of other recent policy changes made by the company, Davies wrote. The initiative should be seen in the broader context of other changes recently made to Google's terms of service that require users to log in or to create a Google+ account before being permitted to leave comments on YouTube, he said.

Currently, Google is also being investigated by a number of data protection authorities over changes to its policies that allow Google to share personal data across all its products and services. The data protection issues and violations highlighted in Davies' complaint go to the heart of many of the aspects already under investigation, he said, adding that the shared endorsements policy is made possible only through company-wide amalgamation of personal data.

Davies hopes the DPAs are able to resolve these matters swiftly to ensure that Internet users continue to enjoy the benefits of online interaction as well as protection of their privacy and personal information.

Google did not respond to a request for comment.

Loek is Amsterdam Correspondent and covers online privacy, intellectual property, open-source and online payment issues for the IDG News Service. Follow him on Twitter at @loekessers or email tips and comments to loek_essers@idg.com

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