Data protection: EU getting tougher on tech companies on a number of fronts

Revelations about phone-tapping and surveillance caused waves between EU and US

Across Europe citizens and governments are less enraptured with tech giants such as Google and Facebook. Photograph: REUTERS/Dado Ruvic

Across Europe citizens and governments are less enraptured with tech giants such as Google and Facebook. Photograph: REUTERS/Dado Ruvic

 

Ireland may welcome US silicon giants with open arms to its shores, but across Europe citizens and governments are less enraptured with tech giants such as Google and Facebook.

Last year’s revelations about widespread phone-tapping and surveillance caused diplomatic waves between the EU and the US, and has put political pressure on countries, particularly Germany, to clamp down on data privacy.

The EU’s clampdown on tech giants such as Google is not confined to the Data Protection Regulation – the EU is getting tough on tech companies on a number of fronts.

Last year the European Court of Justice ruled that Google must delete “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant” data from its search results if it is requested to do so by a member of the public.

The landmark “right to be forgotten case” – it was taken by a Spanish citizen – was seen as a major victory for data-protection campaigners.

Later this month the same court will hold hearings on a a referral from the Irish High Court.

The case involves Austrian privacy campaigner Max Schrems and a dispute with Facebook and Ireland’s Data Protection Commissioner over whether alleged data-sharing with the US National Security Agency breaches the EU’s “Safe Harbour” agreement.

The European Commission’s powerful competition arm also has its sights on Google.

It has been investigating Google for potential abuse of its dominant position since 2010, when a number of complaints were filed with the commission, including one from rival Microsoft.

Since then Google has come up with a number of “remedy” packages, but the case continues to drag on.

Eric Schmidt, chief executive of Google, had his first meeting with competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager this week in Brussels.

The former Danish finance minister took over the powerful post from her predecessor Joaquin Almunia in November, and has promised a swift conclusion to the investigation.

The European Parliament has taken an even tougher stance against US internet giants, passing a resolution in November that called for the unbundling of search engines from other commercial services.

While many believe that US giants like Google are operating a digital monopoly, privately representatives of US multinationals accuse the EU of, at best, a latent anti-Americanism, and at worst of clinging to protectionism.

President Barack Obama recently accused Europe of “essentially trying to set up some roadblocks for our companies to operate effectively there.... We have owned the Internet. Our companies have created it, expanded it, perfected it in ways that they can’t compete.”

Former EU commissioner Viviane Reding disputes that the issue has anything to do with nationality.

“Equal treatment should be for all companies. It is nothing to do with America,” she says.

“ If American companies do not apply the European law when they are in Europe then I think this is very bad.

“Could you imagine a European company operating in the United States and not applying American law?....They should apply the law like everybody else.”

SUZANNE LYNCH

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