EU Worries About Privacy in Google Deal
European lawmakers plan to take the unusual step of pressing antitrust regulators next month to look at privacy concerns raised by Google Inc.'s intended takeover of online ad tracker DoubleClick.
The $3.1 billion deal has spurred rivals and consumer advocates to complain about the control they say it would give Google, the world's most popular search engine, over Internet advertising and personal information.
Both the European Commission and the U.S. Federal Trade Commission are scrutinizing the sale, with the U.S. looking mainly at privacy and EU officials focusing on how the deal could affect the Internet ad market. They plan to complete their inquiry by April 2.
Sophie in 't Veld, a Dutch Liberal Member of the European Parliament, said European politicians would ask their regulators to take privacy into account and would hold a January hearing on it, echoing a U.S. Senate event held in September.
"It's drawing attention to the fact that our reality is changing," in 't Veld told the AP. "There are lots of companies collecting personal data; we volunteer our personal data to get services."
The EU assembly's civil liberties committee will ask EU and U.S. regulators, European data privacy officials, consumer groups and Internet companies -- Google, DoubleClick and others -- to speak at a hearing on either Jan. 21 or Jan. 31.
DoubleClick helps its customers place and track online advertising, including search ads. And Google -- more than its nearest search competitors Yahoo Inc. and Microsoft Corp. -- has made an extremely lucrative business of placing ads on Web pages that specific kinds of consumers are likely to use, generating money for less-visited sites.
Some advertisers worry the deal would allow Google to dominate the Internet.
In 't Veld said it was essential that Europe and the United States start talking about what happens to the information that people pour into the Internet. She said privacy is becoming a matter of civil liberties as governments fighting terrorism ask companies to hand over travel and financial information.
"Ultimately we will have to arrive on common standards," she said.
"The committee is not discussing the merits or details of the merger," she added. "That's not our business -- that's the task of the Commission."
When people feed words into a search engine or fill out government forms, their "personal data doesn't disappear into a black hole," she said.
In the latest of many similar data breaches of varying severity and size, the British government acknowledged last month that it lost two computer disks with addresses, bank account numbers and other details of about 25 million people, she noted.
"This is something many citizens are not aware of," she said. "Who is the owner of the data, what can public authorities do and not do, what kind of legal protection do people have when they use Google and Gmail? The Internet is not anonymous. It is possible to know a lot about us, where we are and what we are doing."
But the Parliament also leaves itself open to a charge that it is telling regulators what to do in a case that is still pending.
"That would be dangerous in my view," said Juan Delgado, a research fellow at the independent think tank Bruegel and a former antitrust official. "There's been criticism of the Americans for politicizing antitrust institutions."
Delgado said he did not believe regulators would take heed.
"The (European) Commission has a reputation for being very independent and for taking decisions on purely technical, economic and legal grounds," he said.
Last month, the Commission launched an in-depth probe into the Google-DoubleClick deal, saying they needed more time to look at how combining "the leading providers" of online advertising space and services and ad-serving technology could reduce competition and ultimately harm consumers.
In addition to worrying about data privacy, consumer groups are concerned about the deal's effect on media that increasingly rely on Internet advertising for revenue.
Google has insisted that combining it with DoubleClick would help expand the Internet ad market, which expanded about 25 percent in 2007.