Consumer Watchdog Takes The Online Privacy Battle To Europe

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BRUSSELS, Belgium — Online privacy got a tremendous boost this week when the European Commission proposed its new data protection rules that — among other important safeguards — would prove for the "right to be forgotten" online.

But that's not all that's been happening since I arrived in this city that is home to the European Commission.  I've been here as "an invited expert" taking part in the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Tracking Protection Working Group's deliberations.

The working group is trying to create a standard for a browser-based Do Not Track mechanism that would give consumers more control over whether their data is collected when they surf the web.  W3C is an international group that sets usually technical standards for the Internet.  In this case the working group is expected to recommend standards for how a Do Not Track message would be sent and what obligations a website would have when the message was received.

I arrived before the meetings started and took Consumer Watchdog's battle with Google to the European Commission with a letter to Competition Commissioner Joaquin Almunia asking that Google's $12.5 billion deal to buy Motorola Mobility be blocked.

Google’s Android smartphone operating system dominates the mobile market with a 38 percent share and is growing. Apple’s iPhone has 27 percent.  Google controls 95 percent of the mobile search market.  There is evidence it is pressuring handset manufacturers to favor Google applications when using the Android operating system. Google’s earlier acquisition of AdMob gave the Internet Giant dominance in mobile ad sales.  Allowing the Motorola Mobility deal would provide Google with unprecedented dominance in virtually all aspects of the mobile world – manufacturing, operating systems, search and advertising.  It would be a virtually unstoppable juggernaut.

The three-day W3C meetings began with a call from U.S. Federal Trade Commission Chairman Jon Leibowitz to develop meaningful Do Not Track rules. I've been attending to ensure that the standards produced give consumers real protections and aren't just meaningless PR that allows industry to claim it is honoring consumers' wishes, but actually does nothing to change current invasive practices.

The W3C Working Group is supposed to have its recommendations by June.  I don't know what will happen. Strong  privacy protections are essential to building user trust in the Internet, something online business needs. You'd think there would be a recognition that a meaningful Do Not Track mechanism is a win-win for consumer and business alike.  But it could well be tech giants like Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and Facebook  are too addicted to their current invasive practices to ever change. They're part of the group. So are online advertising companies and associations.

The stakes are high, which is why Consumer Watchdog is at the W3C table. Google's unilateral action this week combining data from all its services demonstrates the Internet giant doesn't show much concern about user privacy. It does demonstrate clearly why we need protections like those proposed in the European Union's proposed data regulations.

Europe's proposed rules are important to Americans because what happens in Europe won't stay in Europe. In today's digitally driven, globally connected markets, the final European rules will have substantial impact in the United States. That's because the global internet giants — Google, Facebook and Microsoft — will have to follow Europe's rules.  It will be cost effective for them to use the same procedures and offer the same protections around the world. Thus, Americans are likely to receive the same level of protection in many areas as Europeans.

You can expect a tremendous effort by the corporate titans to water down the new regulations. Last year Google spent a record $9.7 million on lobbying to get what its executives want from Washington. You can expect similar boatloads of money flooding Brussels, as the proposed data directive moves forward.

Corporate lobbying is expected.  What's disappointing is the U.S. government's position.  According to Agence France Presse:

"Philip Verveer, the US coordinator for international communications and information policy, welcomed European Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding's focus on this area, but said her plans raised 'quite complex' issues.

" 'Surely what was released yesterday will be very closely examined around the world. I can assure you we are doing that in Washington,' Verveer told reporters in Brussels, where he met EU officials to discuss online privacy questions.

" 'What is very important I think is to try to avoid a situation where there are requirements that may unnecessarily add to compliance costs or administrative costs that will diminish the efficiency with which services can be rendered,' he added."

Verveer sounds like an industry shill to me.

I don't know this will all play out, but this much is clear: Big things are happening on both sides of the Atlantic that will have a direct impact on your privacy. Consumer Watchdog will be there to make sure the policymakers get it right.  Whenever and wherever necessary, we'll snap at the heels of lackadaisical officials and bark in the face of corrupt corporate power brokers. Today after explaining what it is our organization does,  I learned that the French for watchdog is chien de garde. Has a nice ring to it, eh?

John M. Simpson
John M. Simpson
John M. Simpson is an American consumer rights advocate and former journalist. Since 2005, he has worked for Consumer Watchdog, a nonpartisan nonprofit public interest group, as the lead researcher on Inside Google, the group's effort to educate the public about Google's dominance over the internet and the need for greater online privacy.

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