- Associated Press - Thursday, November 4, 2010

BRUSSELS | The European Union wants companies like Google Inc. or Facebook Inc. to give people more control over how their online habits are tracked, requirements that could crimp Internet firms’ ability to target advertising.

The EU said Thursday in a new strategy paper that “people should be able to give their informed consent to the processing of their personal data,” but didn’t give details on what this “informed consent” would look like in practice.

The document doesn’t say whether the EU intends to require users to specifically “opt in” to having their data collected, or whether it is enough to allow them to “opt out.”

It says Internet users “need to know what their rights are if they want to access, rectify or delete their data.”

The document will form the basis for an overhaul of the EU’s 15-year-old laws on data protection scheduled for next year.

Thursday’s strategy is open for public consultation until January and the commission aims to propose legislation by mid-2011. Any new laws would have to be approved by the European Parliament and national governments.

Using an individual’s search history to target online advertising is a key revenue source for companies such as Yahoo Inc. and Google. Other sites use cookies — small files placed on a user’s computer — or pop-up windows to collect data entered online on what websites a user has visited in the past.

Most websites — from newspapers to blogs to social networking sites — today rely on advertising to fund their services.

The more closely ads can be linked to a user’s interests, the more likely they are to be successful.

But privacy watchdogs have raised concerns over whether this information can be linked to an individual’s name or address, what it could be used for, and how long it can be stored.

“The protection of personal data is a fundamental right,” Viviane Reding, the EU’s justice commissioner, said in a statement. “To guarantee this right, we need clear and consistent data protection rules. We also need to bring our laws up to date with the challenges raised by new technologies and globalization.”

Google and its rivals have argued that Internet companies can regulate themselves, and some already allow users to “opt out” of having their information stored.

They also say that they never link an individual’s data to his name or address.

However, privacy activists say that recent breaches of companies’ own policies show that self-regulation is not enough.

Google has come under fire after vans collecting data for its StreetView application also scooped up sensitive information from unprotected wireless networks.

Facebook last month acknowledged that 10 of its most popular “apps” transmitted information about its users to advertisers and data-gathering firms.

The commission also wants countries to implement rules more consistently, which could make it easier for companies to operate across borders.

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