By James Kanter, NYT, May 3, 2011
BRUSSELS — As pressure grows for technology companies like Apple and Google to adjust how their phones and devices gather data, Europe seems to be where the new rules are being determined.
Last year, Google generated a storm of controversy in Germany when it had to acknowledge it had been recording information from unsecured wireless networks while compiling its Street View mapping service.
Then, last week, regulators in France, Germany and Italy said they would examine whether Apple’s iPhone and iPad violated privacy rules by tracking the location of users. Also, reports emerged last month that the Dutch police had obtained information from TomTom, a maker of popular satellite navigation devices, while setting up speed traps, prompting concerns by users and an apology from TomTom.
The companies all said there was nothing sinister about their activities, though Apple said it would issue a software update limiting the time that location data was kept to seven days. None of the information, the companies said, is particularly sensitive from the point of view of personal privacy, and they claim it will help them to deliver better services in many cases.
To address concerns about data protection, Viviane Reding, the European justice commissioner, said in a speech Tuesday that she would propose extending unionwide rules about breaches of privacy to online banking, video games, shopping and social media.
The rules require phone companies and Internet service providers to inform customers of any data breach “without undue delay.” “European citizens care deeply about protecting their privacy and data protection rights,” Ms. Reding said in a separate statement. “Any company operating in the E.U. market or any online product that is targeted at E.U. consumers should comply with E.U. rules.”
Ms. Reding made her remarks shortly after Sony apologized for a data theft involving 77 million account holders of the PlayStation Network, and a week after Apple said it would change the software that logs the location of users of its iPhone and iPad tablet computer. “Seven days is too late,” Ms. Reding said Tuesday, referring to how long it took Sony to inform account holders. Regarding Apple, she said she understood how the discovery that the iPhone collected location data had eroded “the trust of our citizens.”
Abraham L. Newman, an assistant professor at Georgetown University and a specialist in European privacy issues, said Europe’s spotlight on privacy could offer companies like Apple and Google the chance to reorganize the way they handled policies worldwide, using European standards in their corporate strategy. Alternatively, he said, the companies could develop policies to ensure that data gathered in Europe was sufficiently “quarantined” to comply with rules, but limit changes in the rest of the world.
“Apple is entering a political dynamic in Europe which is similar to Google’s experience,” Mr. Newman said. “Authorities in Europe have decided that consumers better not be duped in a world of unlimited location data where companies know literally every step you take.” What particularly distinguishes Europe is the strong role played by so-called national data protection authorities in keeping tabs on privacy issues, he said.
In the United States, there is no single agency dedicated to privacy, and while the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission can deal with violations of privacy, those agencies are mainly focused on enforcing fair business practices.
But Ms. Reding said the differences between Europe and the United States should not overshadow signs of convergence, like the work by the Obama administration and Congress to pass a privacy bill of rights that would stop companies from collecting or sharing personal information without an Internet user’s consent.
“Until recently, there was a common belief that the E.U. and U.S. have different approaches on privacy and that it would be difficult to work together,” Ms. Reding said. “This can no longer be argued in such simple terms.”