Avoiding Google’s European Privacy Gaffes

In many ways Europe and the US are similar, but there’s one key difference that’s essential for search marketers to understand, and that’s the way Europeans and Americans look at privacy. Europeans value privacy over virtually everything else, even before freedom of speech. Not sufficiently recognizing this difference has caused Google to run afoul of European courts and governments on more than one occasion recently.

Google’s privacy issues

Google is the largest search engine in Europe by far. Yahoo and Bing have a presence in Europe but have such a minor percentage of market share that you can easily call Google the dominator in Europe. But lately it seems like Google had more enemies than friends in Europe. Let’s take a closer look at some of the privacy issues Google has had to deal with in Europe recently.

Google Italy – YouTube video. The most dramatic issue Google had to deal with was the YouTube privacy issue in Italy. Three Google executives were sentenced to a suspended sentence of six months in prison because an Italian court found Google guilty of violating an Italian privacy code. The video involved a youth with Down’s syndrome in Italy being taunted by four teenagers, with Italy alleging that Google didn’t respond quickly enough to takedown demands. The Italian judges in that case put privacy over freedom of speech. Google called the ruling a “serious threat to the web” and in a way they are right, but they also might have anticipated this ruling. European privacy rules and the way Europeans look at privacy has been in place for decades, if not centuries.

Google Streetview. Another area in which Google clashed with the European privacy issues is Google Streetview. In many European countries there were people opposed to Google’s taking street level pictures and making them available through Google Maps and Earth. Citizens of a small town in England even persuaded authorities to force Google to stop photographing the village.

Many European countries have strict rules when it comes to photos. One of the things the EU is pushing Google on is the time Google keeps its unblurred versions of the images. But there are even laws, such as in Denmark, which prohibit the taking of pictures in public places or from people in public places, suggesting that Google’s taking any pictures in public may just be illegal.

Google Germany. The country which Google has clashed most in Europe is probably Germany. The Germans have been trying to prevent Google from scanning books and have even proclaimed Google Analytics to be possibly illegal because of privacy matters. And did you know that some YouTube videos which you can see in the US are not available in Germany?

Online privacy issues go beyond Google

But its not just Google which has to deal with the European privacy issues. Every site owner in Europe has to deal with it. And the regulations do not make it any easier for the smaller players than for the bigger ones like Google.

The origin of the way the Europeans look at privacy has different roots. A huge factor in the European concept of “freedom of privacy” is the second World War and the era immediately following. The Nazi worldview, and then the communist mindset made a big impact on the European view on privacy. Especially the lack of privacy in Eastern Europe in the communist area has made Europeans very aware of the need for privacy. This has made Europeans and more so the Germans, very cautious when it comes to privacy.

There is one important rule in the laws Europeans have agreed on in the European Union. Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights states: “Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.”

The struggle between privacy and copyright

But Europeans struggle between privacy and copyright issues. Only recently a bill passed the House of Lords in the UK which might have a big impact on the way online privacy rules have to be handled. The new “digital economy bill” gives English judges the right to take down any site accused of hosting a “substantial” amount of copyright infringing material.

In France the government is pushing a “three strikes” law for web users. In essence, the proposal says that if you are caught illegally downloading copyrighted content three times you might lose the right to use the web entirely.

These rulings in France and the UK have a huge impact on the privacy of the users. And since Europeans are so careful with the privacy these rulings will probably be forced out by the European Union. But its a sign that Europeans are looking in other directions.

Takeaways for search marketers

If you are a company targeting European users, what should you be thinking about or doing differently in Europe than you’re currently doing in the US or elsewhere? Several things.

  • Behavioral targeting is less used in Europe than in the US. And there is a reason for that. You cannot store as much data in Europe and the way you use the data is also debatable. You therefore have to be careful in the way you use behavioral targeting.
  • If you are using YouTube to get your campaign viral be aware of the fact that it might not show in every country.
  • Be careful with using Europeans in either photos or videos without their knowledge. In some countries this may be illegal and could get you in trouble with the authorities.
  • Be sure to understand time limits for storing data which you gather from your campaigns, and be sure to thoroughly delete data that is past those limits.
  • Be sensitive to European privacy expectations—even if they have the slightest sense that you may be invading their privacy you will likely lose a lot of visitors to your site.
  • Check before you launch a campaign if there are any laws or rules you have to take seriously in a specific country.
  • Use international organizations like IAB to find out what you can and cannot do in your campaigns.
  • Finally: use common sense. Think about how a European might react to your campaigns and you are half way there.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Multinational Search

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About The Author: is a Web/search strategist, international search specialist, trainer, and well-respected blogger. Bas is well informed about what's going on in the world of Internet and search marketing worldwide and especially Europe. Bas is the owner of Stateofsearch.com and also posts regularly on his personal blog.

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