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Dutch data protection agency says Google is violating privacy laws

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The privacy policy that Google implemented in March of 2012 violates Dutch privacy laws, the country's data protection agency has found. In a report issued today, the DPA said that Google has "no legal ground" to use things like tracking cookies to collect and unify information about website visitors. "The combining of data by Google from and about multiple services and third-party websites for the purpose of displaying personalized ads, personalization of services, product development and analytics constitutes a major intrusion into the privacy of the users involved," reads an informal English translation. "Some of these data are of a sensitive nature, such as payment information, location data and information on surfing behavior across multiple websites."

"Google spins an invisible web of our personal data, without our consent."

Because of Google's sheer size, the agency says it's virtually impossible for a Dutch user to avoid being tracked in some way, whether through search or cookies from a site using Google's ad platform. "Google spins an invisible web of our personal data, without our consent. And that is forbidden by law," says agency head Jacob Kohnstamm. While Google has argued that it has legitimate reasons to collect this data, the DPA says that it has insufficient safeguards for using the minimum amount of information necessary and that it doesn't get meaningful consent from users. A variety of individual opt-outs and FAQs exist, but the report says these are too onerous and don't add up to a complete opt-out option, despite changes since the policy went into effect. The report also refers to statements by notoriously cavalier Google executive Eric Schmidt, including a quote from a 2010 interview: "We don't need you to type at all. We know where you are. We know where you've been. We can more or less know what you're thinking about."

It's not clear yet what will happen as a result of the report. The Dutch DPA has asked Google to attend a hearing, at which it will decide whether to enforce the rules. The country is one of several in Europe to have taken issue with Google's unified privacy policy, which is built for the relatively lax American privacy framework. In September, French data protection agency CNIL announced that it would be moving forward with sanctions after Google failed to address its privacy concerns; it hopes to impose an individual fine (with a maximum of €150,000) for each French Google user. The UK and Germany are also attempting to force a change in policy or levy fines, but while the company's size has made it easier for the Netherlands to claim it poses a meaningful privacy threat, it also insulates it from many legal threats.

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