Internet Privacy Concerns Cause very Public Row in Brussels
By Sophie Estienne (Wednesday, January 23, 2008)
BRUSSELS (AFP) - Cyber big brothers or friendly providers of targeted information? European parliamentarians have found themselves at odds with Internet giants such as Google on the thorny issue of online privacy.
Google criticised MEPs and rights advocates this week for seeking to have competition authorities consider the privacy aspects of its 3.1 billion dollar takeover bid for online advertising giant DoubleClick.
The row dominated a public hearing of the European parliament's Civil Liberties Committee on the Internet's impact on individual privacy on Monday.
Google's global privacy counsel Peter Fleischer accused the European parliamentarians of seeking "to take a privacy case and shoehorn it into a competition law review."
Sophie In 't Veld, the Dutch parliamentarian who sought the parliamentary hearing, was unapologetic: "The reason you want to have the data is because it gives you a competitive advantage. It is business. I don't think they can be completely disconnected."
Last month the US Federal Trade Commission cleared the plan by Google to buy DoubleClick. While expressing concern about the privacy implications of the deal, the US authority said that aspect could not be considered in its review.
European antitrust authorities, who hold the same view, are set to rule on the matter later this year after the European Commission in November launched a probe, arguing that the merger "would raise competition concerns."
According to Cornelia Kutterer, from the European consumers association BEUC, which is partly funded from EU coffers, many ordinary cybersurfers overestimate the level of privacy they enjoy on-line.
"Businesses don't indicate clearly enough their policy on the protection of personal data," she said.
Fleischer told the MEPs that Google is interested in merging with DoubleClick purely to get into Internet banner advertising.
Google does not collect dossiers on individuals through their search pattern but uses the words of each search to offer more useful, targeted ads, he assured the parliamentary committee.
If someone searches for 'football' they will get very different results in Britain than in the United States, he said.
The Internet has been able to develop, largely free to the consumer, thanks to on-line advertising, Fleischer stressed. "All those who wish to protect consumers should also examine the benefits," he added.
Kutterer argues that the Internet services are not free as consumers "must leave behind their personal details".
"Private information has a real market value which carries a considerable economic impact," echoed Sjoera Nas of the Dutch Data Protection Authority DPA.
The row also centres around the nature of the Internet Protocol (IP) address. While privacy lobbyists argue that it can be used to identify computer users, the industry argues that an IP merely identifies the location of a computer, not an individual cybersurfer.
In a report last month the DPA opined that "personal data must be treated with the same care on the Internet as they are offline".
On-line ads now make up a 27 billion dollar global market which could double over the next four years, according to the EU parliament.
Such figures have encouraged Google's offer for DoubleClick and for software giant Microsoft to shell out six billion dollars for online advertising firm aQuantive last August.
Another sensitive issue is the length of time that information is stored, and the possibilities that it can be handed over to judicial or government authorities or other third parties.
The US authorities last month called on Internet firms to set their own restrictions on how long information may be retained.
Google is leading the way. Last year the company cut the time it stored search information to 18 months.
Originally appeared in Agence France-Presse and Yahoo.