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Tech brands at a crossroads in Europe over data

As Europe demands changes to Google’s privacy policy and launches an investigation into the US’s surveillance tool Prism, we’ve reached a crucial point in the debate about personal data online. Now, do EU politicians have the will to force change?

Michael

When The Guardian - courtesy of whistleblower Edward Snowden - broke the news about the US intelligence services collecting consumers’ data from technology companies such as Google, Facebook and Apple, I argued that it would deter consumers and businesses from using web-based services to transmit sensitive information.

It turns out I was probably wrong, at least about consumers. YouGov’s BrandIndex data shows that none of the companies implicated in the Prism allegations have suffered any adverse effects from the bad PR.

Consumers apparently don’t care whether their conversations are vulnerable to being spied on, or at any rate they are resigned to the fact that the days when they had a meaningful choice in the matter have passed.

But that feeling of impotence and apathy doesn’t extend to the corridors of the EU parliament. There, the mood has become combative, especially as European legislators are at the same time wrangling furiously over a new law to define how data is regulated across the continent in the coming decades.

Consumers might be willing to lie down and accept the status quo, but there’s a tribe of EU politicians - most of them from continental Europe, it must be said - who are determined to fight the creeping power of technology companies, whether anyone is asking them to or not.

The outcome is far from certain and its implications should not be underestimated. At risk is the very ability of these primarily American companies, which dominate online commerce, to do business in Europe in the manner to which they have become accustomed. It’s a manner that some European politicians think bypasses the rights of their constituents by transporting personal data into a completely different jurisdiction.

So far the EU has resisted taking the ‘nuclear option’ of shutting down any of the tech giants’ significant business activities. But it has now announced an “in-depth inquiry” into surveillance of European citizens, while the co-ordinated action by five of Europe’s national data regulators in making Google rewrite its privacy policy is the first acid test of things to come.

Regulators say the changes that Google made in 2012, allowing it to collect and merge data across all of its services including the search engine, Gmail and YouTube, aren’t compatible with current European and national laws.

The next move is Google’s. It says its policies meet all legal requirements, but if it fails to satisfy the regulators by September, fines could be levied through the courts. The likelihood is that Google will do something to placate the authorities, but the multibillion-dollar question is whether it will materially change its business practices or merely its wording – and what the regulators will do in response.

With data protection legislation also going through its key stages of debate in the EU parliament, this autumn will be a defining period for the rights consumers have over their online data.

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