Dutch privacy watchdog says Google breaks data law

AMSTERDAM Fri Nov 29, 2013 2:15am IST

A Google logo is seen at the garage where the company was founded on Google's 15th anniversary in Menlo Park, California September 26, 2013. REUTERS/Stephen Lam

A Google logo is seen at the garage where the company was founded on Google's 15th anniversary in Menlo Park, California September 26, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Stephen Lam

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AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - Google's (GOOG.O) practice of combining personal data from its many different online services violates Dutch data protection law, the country's privacy watchdog said on Thursday after a seven-month investigation.

The Dutch Data Protection Authority, or DPA, asked Google to attend a meeting to discuss its concerns, after which it would decide whether to take any action against the cloud services, Internet search and advertising giant, which could include fines.

Google, responding to the Dutch authority's findings, said it provided users of its services with sufficiently specific information about the way it processed their personal data.

"Our privacy policy respects European law and allows us to create simpler, more effective services. We have engaged fully with the Dutch DPA throughout this process and will continue to do so going forward," Google said in a statement.

The Dutch decision reflects concerns across Europe about the volume of personal data that is held in foreign jurisdictions in so-called "cloud" storage services, where data is stored remotely via the Internet instead of on-site, giving individuals little control over their personal information.

Privacy campaigners have also pointed to documents leaked by the former CIA technician and National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden that suggest U.S. intelligence services have access to material stored in U.S.-based cloud services.

"Google spins an invisible web of our personal data, without consent," said Jacob Kohnstamm, the chairman of the DPA. "That is forbidden by law."

In March 2012, Google unilaterally imposed new terms of service on users of all its cloud services, which include the YouTube video streaming site, the GMail email service, and the ubiquitous Google search engine.

That decision triggered privacy investigations in six European countries, though the fines regulators can typically impose are modest.

In France, the maximum fine is 300,000 euros. In a previous Dutch case involving the gathering of data from Wifi networks, a spokeswoman for the agency said Google - which has a market capitalisation of over $350 billion - could have been fined up to 1 million euros if it had not subsequently complied.

"Google does not properly inform users which personal data the company collects and combines, and for what purposes," the DPA said in a statement.

The report said it was "almost impossible" for a Dutch Internet user not to interact with Google "be it via Search, YouTube or Maps, or passively through third-party websites". (Reporting by Thomas Escritt; Editing by Sara Webb and Mark Trevelyan)

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