Google fined €50 million for data privacy violations; what can we learn from it?

On January 21, 2019, Google was fined for €50 million for violating the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) by the French Supervisory Authority for data protection (CNIL).

GDPR, which went into effect May 25, 2018, was designed to provide EU citizens with greater control of their personal data and rights to what data they choose to share and how that information is retained by organizations. It required organizations that collect data of EU citizens to obtain “clear and affirmative consent” for data collection, have privacy policies in clear and understandable language, inform individuals when their data was compromised, allow them to transfer their data to other organizations, and the “right to be forgotten”, which is the ability to request that their data be deleted.

The fifty-million Euro fine facing Google was the moment the data privacy industry had been waiting for, as GDPR long promised steep costs for those found to be in violation of its data privacy rules.

CNIL reported that Google failed to fully disclose to users how their personal information is collected and what happens to it, in addition to not properly obtaining user consent for displaying personalized ads.

Although Google had made changes to comply with GDPR, the CNIL said in a statement that “the infringements observed deprive the users of essential guarantees regarding processing operations that can reveal important parts of their private life since they are based on a huge amount of data, a wide variety of services, and almost unlimited possible combinations.” They added that the violations were continuous breaches of the regulation, and “not a one-off, time-limited infringement.”

CNIL began investigating Google on the day of the GDPR deadline in response to concerns raised by to privacy activist groups, None of Your Business and La Quadrature du Net. These groups filed complaints with CNIL, claiming that Google did not have a valid legal basis under GDPR to process personal data for the use of personalized and targeted ads.

These groups have also filed privacy complaints against Facebook and its subsidiaries, including Instagram and WhatsApp.

In the course of their investigation, CNIL found that when users created Google accounts with Android smartphones, the company’s practices violated GDPR in two ways – transparency and legal basis for the ads personalization. CNIL additionally found that the notices Google provided to users about what type of information it sought were not easily accessible.

A key fundament of GDPR is that users are able to easily locate and fully understand the extent of data processing operations carried out by organizations. In this Google was found wanting, where their terms were described as “too generic and vague in manner.” Overall, CNIL concluded that “the information communicated is not clear enough” that the average user could understand that the legal basis of processing operations for the ads personalization is consent. In other words, if you do not provide consent to have your information processed for personalized ads, the company legally cannot do it. Per GDPR, consent for data processing must be “unambiguous” with “clear affirmative action from the user.”  

Google responded to the fine with a statement affirming its commitment to meeting transparency expectations and consent requirements of GDPR, and that it is “studying the decision to determine our next steps.”

Despite the fact that companies were given a two-year time frame to comply with the regulation, many were not compliant by the deadline when it went out on May 25, 2018. Other companies only made limited efforts to become compliant, choosing to wait until the first major fine was released to see how serious the enforcement would be. If some of these companies were hoping to get a pass from another national data protection authority, that decision will most certainly be critically assessed in comparison with CNIL’s approach.

Consent requirements seem to be the greatest obstacle for companies struggling with GDPR’s requirements, especially where it concerns transparency and accessibility. Under GDPR, companies cannot hand out a single consent form with a bundle of data uses. That has long been industry standard practice, and part of the reason that Google was found to in violation of GDPR.  

To avoid facing similar fines in the future, companies can review how they obtain consent to collect personal information of users. Each data set requires its own consent– you have to be able to agree or disagree to each way your information will be used.

This level of transparency is essential and it requires changing from previously accepted business practices.

If you have any questions or comments pertaining to GDPR or this article, feel free to contact us at info@centry.global. Be sure to follow us on Twitter @CentryGlobal an subscribe for more content like this!

This article was written by Kristina Weber, Content Manager of Centry Global.

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