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Europe Challenges Google on Privacy Issues

May 26, 2010 (CAP News Wire) – European regulators continue to target Google in ways that their U.S. counterparts rarely do. This has been an ongoing situation, as we’ve discussed months ago here at the CAP News page. However, it seems to be escalating: Recent reports show that Germany has now opened a formal investigation over Google’s trademark data collection practices.

Those data collection practices enable the search engine superstar to offer the premium online services that it does, so targeting them specifically shows that the European regulators are interested in striking the heart of the beast (so to speak). This may be because they have seen firsthand that efforts to tackle Google legally by other routes — say, by challenging its AdWords policies in court — have always failed (read more about that here).

“The action in the city-state of Hamburg, where Google’s German headquarters is located, could increase pressure on the company to turn over one of the hard drives used in its data-gathering effort, something Google has declined to do thus far,” writes Kevin J. O’Brien at the New York Times.

“The investigation, which will determine whether prosecutors bring criminal charges against Google employees, came in response to a complaint filed Monday by Jens Ferner, a law student from Alsdorf, Germany. Mr. Ferner said he wanted to clarify German law regarding the collection of data from unsecured wireless networks,” O’Brien continues.

Although it refused to hand over the hard drives so far, Google ahs admitted to the Germans that it has “inadvertently” collected some 600 GB of data “from unsecured Wi-Fi networks around the world as it assembled its Street View archive”. The company is claiming that this data collection was accidentally collected due to “a programming error” and has offered to destroy it.

Tellingly, though, Google not only hasn’t destroyed that data yet, but is presumably actually using it. The same New York Times article also mentions that Google is being questioned on this front by U.S. regulators, as well; another New York Times article explains that other European countries France, Spain, and the Czech Republic are also investigating Google’s Wifi collection policies.

On a related note, Google search marketing competitor Facebook may have had its eye on this news when it made the recent announcement that it would revise its privacy policies to make it easier for people to keep their personal info private. It had been coming under fire recently for allowing such info as friends, location, employment, and other personal info to be viewed publicly by everyone, even if users didn’t want it to be.

Announcing this move, Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg has written: “There needs to be a simpler way to control your information. In the coming weeks, we will add privacy controls that are much simpler to use. We will also give you an easy way to turn off all third-party services. We are working hard to make these changes available as soon as possible. We hope you’ll be pleased with the result of our work and, as always, we’ll be eager to get your feedback.”