EU considers tighter Internet privacy rules

Christopher Werth Jan 5, 2012

Stacey Vanek Smith: The European Union could soon begin cracking down on how online companies use personal data. Europeans are increasingly worried about the kinds of information Facebook Google and others are gathering.

New proposals are expected from the EU this month, as Christopher Werth reports.

Christopher Werth: At his apartment in Vienna, Max Schrems tosses down a towering stack of papers on his living room table.

Max Schrems: That’s like the pile.

It’s a printout of all the data Facebook says it’s collected on him as a member of the site. Under European law, companies are required to hand over such information upon request. Schrems, who heads the campaign group Europe vs. Facebook, got back over 1,200 pages.

Schrems: My first shock was how much information was there.

For example, it contains posts Schrems says he deleted years ago, and even includes the exact location of the computer he logged on from.

Schrems: Facebook is not disclosing that they have something like where everyone is tracked down. And under European laws, they have to disclose all that.

Current EU data protection law goes back to 1995, well before companies like Facebook and Google even existed. Now, European lawmakers want to strengthen rules over how data is collected and used. And they’re considering steep fines — some as high as 5 percent of global, annual turnover — for companies that don’t comply.

But privacy lawyer Ulrich Boerger says there’s a question mark over just how far the long arm of European law can reach.

Ulrich Boerger: Many of the U.S.-based companies take the position that if they conduct their business from the U.S., if their servers are based in the U.S., they are not bound by all of the laws of the world.

Facebook told Marketplace it’s waiting to see the EU’s full proposals before commenting “comprehensively.” But Johannes Caspar, a German data protection official who’s brought legal action against Facebook, warns that fines aren’t the only threat to sites that don’t follow European regulations.

Johannes Caspar: They will face the consequences. And I think it wouldn’t be good for Facebook. They would lose their reputation.

And he says any company without a reputation for respecting its members’ privacy could soon lose members too.

In Vienna, I’m Christopher Werth for Marketplace.

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