Google and Facebook to face tougher EU privacy rules

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union (EU) wants stronger privacy rules to give Internet users more control over how social-networking sites such as Facebook, or search engines such as Google use their personal information.

People attend a workshop on the first day of the 18th World Wide Web Conference in Madrid April 20, 2009. The conference starts today and will last until April 24th. REUTERS/Susana Vera

The new rules, which would overhaul 15-year-old laws, will be prepared next year, following public consultations, EU officials said.

“Benefits of ... technology to individuals, businesses and public authorities must go hand-in-hand with the necessary respect for personal data,” the European Commission said in a statement.

The Commission also wants to give more power to data protection authorities in EU member states, revise rules for privacy in police work, and harmonize legislation across the 27-member bloc to cut red tape for businesses. The crackdown comes amid rising worries about web privacy issues as companies such as Google Inc, Facebook, Microsoft, and Yahoo collect more information about their users’ online habits, which they can use to attract advertisers.

Britain ruled on Wednesday that Google had breached UK law by harvesting emails, Internet addresses, and passwords while collecting data for its Streetview maps service.

Italy, France, Germany, Spain, and Canada are investigating the company on the same issue. U.S. regulators ended their probe last week after Google addressed their concerns.

But Commission officials said it was unclear how the EU executive could force companies to comply with its demands.

“It’s worthwhile giving this a try,” Thomas Zerdick, a Commission expert on data protection, told reporters, when asked how the executive would convince U.S.-based Facebook to comply with any demands to fully delete data.

Privacy concerns led to tensions with the United States earlier this year, when the European Parliament vetoed a deal struck by the Commission with Washington on sharing information about citizens’ bank transfers in pursuit of terrorism suspects.

The agreement had to be renegotiated to include more data protection clauses, before it went into effect in August.

Additional reporting by Foo Yun Chee; Editing by Sharon Lindores