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GDPR claims first major victim

GDPR claims first major victim

With bleak inevitability it was confirmed this week that Google has been fined for breaching the European Union’s new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

GDPR is designed to protect the data and privacy of all European Union and European Economic Area citizens, both within the EU and if that data is later exported. Under the new regulations, users must provide “informed and specific consent” before companies can use their data. Fines can be up to €20m or 4% of a company’s turnover, whichever is the larger amount.

Given that the business model of the world’s tech giants is based around gathering, manipulating and selling data – not products or services as they often advertise – it’s not a real shock that one of these companies would be the first to breach GDPR regulations.

The French data protection office, CNIL, found Google guilty of breaking the rules this week and fined the company US$50m for its behaviour. The fine was levied on the basis that Google users were unable to fully understand how the company uses their data thanks to vague and generic disclosures.

This is a problem if any company does it, but the fact that Google is so embedded in our lives makes it is almost uniquely placed to abuse our data. The amount and nature of the data it processes through its dozens of services is a big, flashing warning sign for regulators. Perhaps only Facebook is in the same league.

As to what the consequences of this decision could be, the most obvious is the likelihood of further fines for other technology giants soon. The case against Google was brought by None Of Your Business and La Quadrature du Net – non-profit organisations which aim to promote enforcement of digital rights and online privacy laws. Max Schrems, founder of None Of Your Business, has filed similar complaints against Netflix, Amazon, Apple, Spotify and Google’s YouTube.

This fine, and any that follow, will force technology giants to reconsider their policies and provide clearer and more concise guidelines for users to prevent future fines.

The second consequence is that we are likely to see an even greater amount of money spent on lobbying. The world’s technology giants are already some of the biggest political spenders, and they are likely to redouble their efforts.

The Washington Post reports that Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google and Microsoft spent US$68m between them on political lobbying in 2018. Google managed to spend almost a third of that total on its own.

In America, as in Europe, these tech giants are under siege from all sides. Both users and regulators are worried about the growing market power of these firms. Speculation has begun that drastic action needs to be taken, up to and including the break up of the tech companies in the same manner as the old oil and railway giants were split over a century ago.

Because of this, we would expect to see the spend on lobbying across the world continue to increase in 2019 – after all, that method has always worked, and tech giants are likely to exhaust that route before looking inward and changing significantly their business practices.

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