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Viv Reding: That French Google fine? Pfft - it's pocket money

My data reform will tackle that, sniffs EC commissioner

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Brussels' justice commissioner Viviane Reding may still be licking her wounds after her efforts to rewrite the EU's 19-year-old data protection law hit the skids late last year, but it hasn't stopped her from saying that companies like Google should be whacked with much bigger fines.

Her comment came following a decision by the French data watchdog CNIL (Commission Nationale de l’Informatique et des Libertés) earlier this month, which confirmed that Google's failure to comply with DP law over the ad giant's 2012 privacy policy tweak had landed it with a fine of just €150,000.

Mountain View has said it will appeal against the ruling, even though the penalty itself was tiny.

Reding said it was peanuts. Well, in her words, "pocket money".

She added that "people need to see that their rights are enforced in a meaningful way. If a company has broken the rules and failed to mend its ways, this should have serious consequences."

Reding's data protection reform proposals suffered a major setback late last year when the European Council's legal service chief questioned whether its "one-stop shop" measure was lawful, opining that it might breach European citizens' human rights.

The EC's vice president has repeatedly attacked the patchwork nature of data protection legislation across the 28-member state bloc that allows different countries to use different measures and sanctions against firms where privacy compliance is an issue.

She told your correspondent in 2011 that "in future there will be one rule to apply to the whole territory of the European law".

But the clock is ticking, and Reding's beloved draft DP bill - which has already undergone more than 4,000 amendments - now looks unlikely to be passed before May this year when the EU parliamentary elections will take place.

No wonder, then, that the commissioner is using Google as an example where the current law has failed.

During a speech in Munich, Germany, Reding said that member states were being stubborn about her proposed rewrite of DP law by claiming that they were "stalling" the process.

She said of Google:

[T]he company introduced changes to its privacy policy two years ago. Several national data protection authorities in the EU found that this does not comply with existing data protection rules. Google has been sanctioned in two countries, France and Spain, and is under investigation in another four, including Germany.

In Spain, Google was fined the maximum amount of €900,000, while in France – whose data protection authority is one of the most respected and feared in Europe – the fine levied was €150,000, also the highest possible sum.

Taking Google's 2012 performance figures, the fine in France represents 0.0003 per cent of its global turnover. Pocket money.

She then mused: "Is it surprising to anyone that two whole years after the case emerged, it is still unclear whether Google will amend its privacy policy or not?"

Before swiftly returning to her sales pitch:

Europeans need to get serious. And that is why our reform introduces stiff sanctions that can reach as much as 2 per cent of the global annual turnover of a company. In the Google case, that would have meant a fine of €731m ($1bn). A sum much harder to brush off.

At the start of this year, Google's global privacy counsel Peter Fleischer commented in a personal blog post that Reding's "much-ballyhooed, and much-flawed, proposal to re-write [the EU's] privacy laws for the next twenty years [had] collapsed."

He said: "The old draft is dead, and something else will eventually be resurrected in its place."

Fleischer added that he hoped lawmakers would come up with "a better, more modern and more balanced law".

One can only ponder on how Google might measure that balance, however. ®

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