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How Europe Is Taking Online Privacy Far More Seriously Than The U.S.

Last week, Facebook announced it would cease using facial recognition technology on European Union users and delete all data following complaints from member states and an inquiry by the Irish Data Commissioner. While the Electronic Privacy Information Center, or EPIC, filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission here in the U.S. over Facebook’s use of the same technology, the complaint remains pending — repeating a familiar narrative of online giants facing higher levels of scrutiny in European Union countries than in the United States.

In the U.S. numerous agencies enforce a “patchwork” of laws defining online privacy protections in different sectors, leaving some areas with very little oversight and users without a clear path to pursue if they feel their rights have been violated. It’s a different story in the E.U., where online privacy policy is guided by the Data Protection Directive — a sort of bill of rights for online users that provides member nations with guidelines guaranteeing a base level of control for users.

European protections are on the cusp of becoming even more robust with proposed regulation this year that would implement rules superseding national level laws and extending the scope of protections to apply to all foreign companies processing the data of EU residents. The new regulation also comes with some teeth: Penalties up to two percent of global revenues for offending companies.

To put that into perspective, this summer Google agreed to pay the largest Federal Trade Commission settlement ever to an individual company: It amounted to five hours of 2011 revenues. Under the proposed European Commission Data Protection rules it could have amounted to one hundred seventy-five hours of revenue.

The European Commission website claims that 70 percent of Europeans are worried about misuse of their personal data, but Americans are concerned too. According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project 73 percent object to their search history information being gathered even if it is to personalize search results and eighty-five percent of Americans call controlling who has access to their personal information “very important.”

Despite public sentiment, it’s unlikely major tech companies will change their approach to privacy without a fight. After all, big data is big business, and those businesses spend big money to keep it that way.

Facebook has upped it’s lobbying spending more than three-fold from $351,390 in 2010 to $1,350,000 in 2011 and started a PAC last year to raise money for political candidates last year. Google nearly doubled its lobbying from to $5,160,000 in 2010 to $9,680,000 in 2011. Both companies along with Amazon are founding members of the new Internet Association lobby announced last week.

Andrea Peterson is the Social Media and Analytics Editor at American Progress. This article is cross-posted at ThinkProgress.

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