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Google Balks at Turning Over Data to Regulators

Google has balked at requests from regulators to surrender Internet data and e-mails it collected from unsecured home wireless networks, saying it needed time to resolve legal issues.

In Germany, Google said it was not able to comply with the Hamburg data protection supervisor’s Thursday deadline to hand over data the company had collected — inadvertently, it says — while roving cars were compiling its Street View photo map archive.

Ironically, the company implied that German privacy laws were preventing it from turning over the information, even to a government agency.

The camera of a German Google Street View car
Getty Images
The camera of a German Google Street View car

“As granting access to payload data creates legal challenges in Germany which we need to review, we are continuing to discuss the appropriate legal and logistical process for making the data available,” Peter Barron, a Google spokesman in London, said in a statement. “We hope, given more time, to be able to resolve this difficult issue.”

The Hamburg data protection supervisor, Johannes Caspar, expressed his disappointment. In a statement, he said the state prosecutor, Lutz von Selle, had assured him that complying with the request would not constitute “criminal behavior” by Google.

“Therefore there is no apparent reason to still withhold the data from us,” Mr. Caspar said, while noting that prosecutors in Hamburg, where Google has its German headquarters, have opened a criminal investigation.

Mr. Caspar did not specify what steps he might take next.

Meanwhile, the privacy commissioner in Hong Kong, Roderick B. Woo, threatened unspecified sanctions after Google did not respond to his request to inspect data collected in the territory by the roving cars. Mr. Woo said Google had ignored a Monday deadline to turn over the information.

“I am dismayed by Google’s apparent lack of sincerity in its handling of this matter,” Mr. Woo said in a statement. “I do not see that Google is taking the matter seriously enough. Unless some remedial measures are taken by Google promptly, I shall have to consider escalating the situation and resort to more assertive action.”

A Google representative in Hong Kong could not be reached immediately for comment Thursday.

The standoffs increase the chance that Google may face fines and legal action in Europe and Asia.

The company has said its cars collected 600 gigabytes of “fragmentary data” from unsecured Wi-Fi networks in 33 countries and Hong Kong. It has declined to describe the data in more detail, and says it was gathered inadvertently because of a programming error.

Criticism of the search company’s privacy practices has been mounting in Europe, where on Wednesday an advisory panel to the European Commission accused Google, Microsoft and Yahoo, which are all U.S. companies, of violating European Union data retention rules by keeping information typed into their search fields from individual computers for more than six months.

Although fines and administrative sanctions in privacy cases tend to be limited — in Germany the maximum penalty is €50,000, or $61,500 — one privacy expert said Google’s lack of compliance with regulators’ requests could damage its reputation.

“Google’s refusal to hand over the data will be seen as a declaration of war by European regulators,” said Simon Davies, the director of Privacy International, a London organization representing data protection groups in 40 countries. “This is about sovereignty and a country’s right to determine on its citizens’ behalf what is right and what is wrong.”

Google, based in Mountain View, California, has offered to destroy the data, but has not allowed regulators to see and verify what it has collected. Google has destroyed data collected in Denmark, Ireland and Austria at the request of local regulators.

But eight other European countries — Britain, Germany, France, Spain, Italy, the Czech Republic, Switzerland and Belgium — have asked Google to retain data collected in those nations, which may be used as evidence in future legal proceedings.

In the United States, the chairman of the Federal Trade Commission, Jon Leibowitz, told Congress last week that his agency would look into Google’s actions.

Some have questioned Google’s assertion that it gathered the data inadvertently.

Google and Chinese property rights

“If the company is fighting this so hard, it suggests there is more to this than meets the eye,” said Mr. Davies, of Privacy International. “The real question is: What was Google collecting from unwitting individuals and why? So far, nobody really knows.”

One privacy lawyer said Google might be wagering that paying fines and enduring negative publicity was preferable to giving regulators insight into its data collection practices.

“Remember that Microsoft’s reputation took a hit for a decade in Europe while it faced its antitrust suit here,” said Ulrich Börger, a privacy lawyer in Hamburg at Latham & Watkins, a U.S. law firm. “But at the end of the day, the negative publicity did not affect the company’s business bottom line in Europe.”

Regulators and prosecutors may be hard-pressed to compel Google to relinquish hard drives that are not being kept in their countries.

“Our understanding is that the data collected, including Wi-Fi data, is held overseas in the United States,” said Karen Curtis, the Australian privacy commissioner.

Prosecutors in Hamburg may also have difficulty bringing charges because Germany has no legal concept of corporate criminal liability. Hamburg prosecutors would have to prove that individuals working for Google deliberately broke wiretapping laws.

Proving that the driver of a Street View recording vehicle had such knowledge and intent may be difficult, said Ulrich Börger, a privacy lawyer in Hamburg at Latham & Watkins, a U.S. law firm. “This is not going to be an easy prosecution,” he said.

A Chinese novelist’s lawsuit against Google over its online library is going ahead in court after settlement talks failed, The Associated Press reported from Beijing.

The novelist, Mian Mian — known for lurid tales of sex, drugs and nightlife — filed suit in October after her latest book, “Acid House,” was scanned into the library. Google says it removed the work after receiving Ms. Mian’s complaint, but the author is suing for damages of 61,000 renminbi, or $9,000, and a public apology.

A Beijing court held a hearing Wednesday after talks ordered by the judge failed to produce a settlement, said Sun Jingwei, Ms. Mian’s lawyer. The next court date has not been set, Mr. Sun said. A Google spokeswoman in Beijing, Marsha Wang, declined to comment.

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