Google under EU scrutiny for YouTube privacy policy

The European Commission is investigating the privacy policy applied by YouTube to the channel dedicated to European Union activities, EU Tube.

“We are checking with Google what they do with the information they obtain from users accessing EU content through YouTubeexternal services,” Joseph Hennon, the Commission’s spokesperson on communication policy, told EurActiv, making clear that the problem might also arise for YouTube videos embedded in the websites of the EU institutions, in addition to EU Tubeexternal .

Brussels refused to rule out drastic action. “The outcome of our talks might be a new arrangement with Google, or the appearance of a prominent privacy statement in all EU videos,” said Hennon. Asked whether the Commission could leave YouTube, the spokesman replied: “It is theoretically possible. We are certainly considering other channels, such as Daily Motionexternal ,” the French alternative to YouTube, which is much less popular.

The EU executive has so far ruled out a presence in other widely used web services, such as Second Life or MySpace. Nevertheless, three commissioners have Facebook pages (Meglena Kunevaexternal Louis Michelexternal and Margot Wallströmexternal ), while Brussels is “examining an official presence on Twitter,” Hennon said.

The main issue with YouTube stems from the divergent policies of Google and the EU institutions regarding the use of Web cookies, pieces of data stored on the computers of users when they access a website or an Internet service.

The EU’s official websiteexternal uses so-called session cookies, which only remember users’ choices for the period that they are connected to the website. “As soon as they leave ‘Europa’, the cookies are deleted,” explained Hennon.

Google, and thus YouTube, have a completely different approach to cookies. The US company holds cookies related to its users for months and uses them to track Internet surfers, identifying their interests as potential consumers. This information is then sold to advertisers to provide tailored advertising, as acknowledged in the YouTube privacy noticeexternal .

According to official figures, around 14 million videos have been downloaded from the EU Tube channel since it was activated 18 months ago. Google carries in its databases the surfing histories of all EU Tube users, drawing up personal profiles for those who are registered in YouTube and electronic profiles for the others.

The Europa website has an average of 500,000 visitors per day, who might also be identified by Google once they watch a YouTube video on the EU’s official portal.

The issue has also caused concern in the United States, where the new Obama administration recently stopped using embedded YouTube videos on the official White House website. But they denied having done so for privacy reasons.

Peter Fleischer, Google’s privacy counsel, told EurActiv: “YouTube has strong, robust privacy policies protecting users. We are confident that the Commission will be satisfied with them.”

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