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11/4/2010
12:32 PM
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European Union To Update Privacy Laws

Google Street View, Facebook breaches prompt review of consumer protection, with goal to roll out regulations in 2011.

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The European Union today recommended updating privacy laws to make it easier for consumers to delete their information from the Internet and to strengthen penalties for websites and companies that violate laws.

It has been about 15 years since Europe last revisited Internet privacy, a time that has seen the rise of entities such as Facebook and Google. In that period, the region -- and many areas of the world -- have filed lawsuits and launched government investigations in the wake of Google Street View vans collecting sensitive data from unprotected wireless networks. Popular social networking site Facebook also has come under attack for sharing unwitting accountholders' personal information with advertisers.

"The protection of personal data is a fundamental right," Viviane Reding, the EU's justice commissioner, said in a statement. "To guarantee this right, we need clear and consistent data protection rules. We also need to bring our laws up to date with the challenges raised by new technologies and globalization."

The new rules would go into effect in 2011, after a period of public consultation to take place through Jan. 15 via the commission's website.

In addition, businesses must clearly inform consumers about what "data are collected and processed, for what reasons, for how long, and what their rights are if they want to access, rectify, or delete their data," according to the commission.

"Basic elements of transparency are the requirements that the information must be easily accessible and easy to understand, and that clear and plain language is used. This is particularly relevant in the online environment, where quite often privacy notices are unclear, difficult to access, non-transparent, and not always in full compliance with existing rules," the recommendations continued.

Under its plan, the commission would synchronize legislation across all 27 members of the EU, cutting the bureaucratic red tape for businesses and law enforcement. The EU also discussed concerns raised by offshoring and cloud computing.

"Under the Lisbon Treaty, the EU now has the possibility to lay down comprehensive and coherent rules on data protection for all sectors, including police and criminal justice," the commission's paper said. "Naturally, the specificities and needs of these sectors will be taken into account. Under the review, data retained for law enforcement purposes should also be covered by the new legislative framework."

Europe historically has taken a harsher stance on personal privacy issues when compared to the United States. On Wednesday, Great Britain ruled Google had broken the nation's rules when its Street View cars harvested data. However, it is unlikely the company will face fines or other penalties, according to local news reports. France, Italy, Spain, and Germany, along with United States neighbor Canada, are looking into Google and Street View. The United States ended its investigation last week.

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