Information Overload German Court Disciplines Google

A district court in Hamburg has ruled that Google must remove ten clauses from its terms of service for German users. The decision comes after a German consumer organization accused the Internet giant of luring users into giving up their rights.

Google provides a gold mine of information. But who benefits most from all that data?

Google provides a gold mine of information. But who benefits most from all that data?

A Hamburg court has ruled that Google must remove 10 offending clauses from out of it's terms of service agreements on its Web services in Germany. The case against the international Internet giant had been brought by the Federation of German Consumer Organizations (VZBV), a consumer rights organization, who said that Google had contravened German federal law by luring users into giving up their rights to certain kinds of data. Google, which provides online search facilities, e-mail and social networking among other things, would have been able to publish the material it had gathered without concerns about copyright, the VZBV argued.

Basically the offending clauses gave the California-based corporation the right to access users' private online accounts, read personal e-mails and delete contents. It also gave them the right to pass data onto partner companies and compare customers' details for marketing and advertising purposes. The court stated that users were often completely unaware of the rights that they were giving Google over their personal data.

"The copyright clause, which will be removed, was so broad and unclear that it could be interpreted in many different ways," Susanne Einsiedler, a spokeswoman for VZVB told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "Users had no way of knowing what they were actually agreeing to."

Complaint Box for Consumers

The result of the court's decision is that, from now on in Germany, Google will need to obtain users' explicit consent before using their data. In addition, the company must install an online complaint box for customer criticism, and it must provide confirmation of receipt for each complaint.

Google has come under fire for its management of private data a number of times in the past few years, most recently for its Street View project which links ground-level images of streets -- complete with homes, buildings and monuments -- to its Google Maps service.

A new stricter German law, a revision of the current Federal Data Protection Act comes into effect on Sept. 1 and this will also affect Google. The law is aimed at "restricting the illegal trade in personal data" and aims to provide Internet users with more control over the way their personal data is used.

According to a study conducted by the VZVB, 87 percent of Germans still believe that data protection laws should be tougher. In the face of the country's upcoming federal election, in which the Internet-focused Pirate Party is also trying to gain seats in parliament, the issue may prove to be an important one for many voters.



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