Google, data protection and privacy

Bursonn-Marstelle hosted a useful event in their new offices, which are at the north end of Covent Garden. The event was organised by the Initiative for a Competitive Online Market Place (ICOMP): Protecting the consumer; privacy in digital age. The panellists were  Christopher Graham, the UK Information Commissioner, Georgina Nelson LLP from Which? and Pamela Jones Harbour LLP from Fulbright and Jaworski (USA).  Auke Haagsma the Director of  ICOMP chaired the event. A better title might have been, as it turned out, the European regulation framework for data protection and Google’s new privacy policy. If you hav’nt clicked on a google privacy policy link before have quick look at the type of advice we are talking about. .


It was a timely discussion as you will be aware if you have watched the BBC coverage today. Google are pressing ahead with their new privacy policy and joined up services but some people think this is misjudged or even arrogant while others, including one of the panellists, Christopher Graham  thinks google may simply be  ahead of the curve in understanding how the public really feel about privacy. The Information commissioner also pointed out that  while what Google is doing is not  illegal his priority is to ensure that large digital companies maintain a respect for  citizens privacy online.  We heard a great deal about research carried out by Big Brother Watch and Which?  who believe that  the consumer would be more worried if they new more and had a better understanding about the technical issues surrounding the use of personal information in social media and e-commerce.  Georgina  Nelson had a clear message in asking for  more regulation with a  more explicit definition of consent and with some practical measures to support consumer understanding of what  that means.

There was one important thing lacking in the discussions and questions though; there was no actual exploration of  what ws meant by the term private information or the term privacy or the relative importance of different types of personal information, data or meta-data that are held by google or  any other company ( for commercial gain). Theo Bertram from google asked three questions about Microsoft’s privacy policy but these were quickly squashed by Pamela Jones Harbour who had spent the evening attacking google with some well designed slides and a slick commentary. A useful response from Google to similar attacks can be seen here.  More on what is private…if you read the House of Lords report for the Joint Committee on Privacy and Injunctions (p13), they state that:  There is no exhaustive or definitive list of what is private. Carter-Ruck on Libel and Privacy  gives the following examples of what may be regarded as private information

racial or ethnic origin

physical or mental health

physical characteristics

family relationships

personal relationships information conveyed in the course of personal relationships

political opinions and affiliations

personal financial and commercial information

matters pertaining to the home


past criminal involvement

connection with crime as victim or witness and

information relating to children

This is a big list which hints at the massive volumes of data that  could be included in any accusation of  breaching data protection or on line privacy if we are not sensible. The public will understand that some information is more worthy of protection than others and they will also understand that there is a trade off  between giving relatively valueless small amounts of personal information for the purposes of aggregation with getting better access to online resources and services but where does that overlap with the view that large companies like Google, Microsoft and Apple hold of collecting ever larger amounts of information and meta data for purposes of monetisation or what they often see as a greater good  in funding further technical developments and consumer services in the cloud.  Christopher Graham encouragingly  asked us to engage with MEPs and MPs to influence the debate and to focus on ‘high level principles’ rather than an overprescription of detail (a real danger in Europe). How should we report, record and follow up on data protection breaches in a practical, affordable way?

Read more on this subjection in the  ICOMP blog



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