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Are government bureaucrats in Europe trying to kill the commercial internet? If you've been following all of the laws, directives and general bureaucratic gobbledygook lately, you just might start to think the answer is 'yes'.

And now comes a new gem: some government officials in Germany apparently believe that Google Analytics is illegal. That's right, the free analytics service provided by Google is a threat to the citizens of Germany and they must be protected!

As reported by TechCrunch's Robin Wauters:

According to an article in today’s Zeit Online (poor Google translation here), multiple federal and state government officials charged with guarding over national data protection are convinced that Google Analytics is against the law in Germany and are mulling imposing fines on companies who use the service to gather detailed stats based on their website visitors’ usage patterns without the explicit consent of those visitors.

Still according to the Zeit Online article, an approximate 13% of German website publishers (meaning those with sites that have .de as their TLD) currently use Google Analytics, including several websites of leading media organizations, political parties and pharmaceutical companies. The government officials are particularly wary about the information Google is able to collect on websites of health insurance companies and the like, saying Google could conceivably create profiles of people that would include information about their interests, lifestyles, consumption patterns, political and sexual preferences.

Now I don't know about you, but the last time I logged into Google Analytics, I didn't get a breakdown of how many conversions came from heterosexual males who like to watch soccer and drink heavily on the weekends. Perhaps Google just hasn't turned this reporting on for me yet.

Sarcasm aside, I think some of the concerns over the amount of data Google collects are valid but this isn't one of them. Conceivably, some of the data Google collects from Analytics could combined with other data Google might collect elsewhere to build a profile of a specific user. But then you'd have to believe that Google is in violation of its own privacy policy and the spirit of its Analytics terms of service, which state:

You will not (and will not allow any third party to) use the Service to track or collect personally identifiable information of Internet users, nor will You (or will You allow any third party to) associate any data gathered from Your website(s) (or such third parties' website(s)) with any personally identifying information from any source as part of Your use (or such third parties' use) of the Service. You will have and abide by an appropriate privacy policy and will comply with all applicable laws relating to the collection of information from visitors to Your websites. You must post a privacy policy and that policy must provide notice of your use of a cookie that collects anonymous traffic data.

Even if one is to assume that Google Analytics is a dire privacy hazard, it's not the only analytics service out there. There are paid analytics solutions which offer far more robust tracking. And at the most basic level, an analysis of server logs themselves can provide much of the same data as Google Analytics. Are server logs illegal in Germany too?

At the end of the day, I don't think government bureaucrats are intentionally trying to kill the commercial internet. But they are threatening the economic competitiveness of their countries. Analytics data can help businesses take aggregate, anonymous information about a website's users and traffic patterns, glean important usage information and in turn use that newfound knowledge to better serve consumers. What's so bad about that? For government bureaucrats who can't see the benefit, perhaps a simple explanation is in order: when companies are better able to serve consumers, they sell more products and services. And that means more tax revenue.

Instead, it seems that some bureaucrats want to flip common sense on its head and would prefer that companies know as little about their customers and potential customers as possible. The problem, of course, is that if businesses have to fear penalties of up to €50,000 for doing something as innocuous as using Google Analytics, the smart ones will probably pick up and go somewhere else because where there's one foolish law, there are bound to be many more.

Photo credit: markhillary via Flickr.

Patricio Robles

Published 26 November, 2009 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

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Comments (10)

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juliemarty

You can get instant medical insurance at the lowest price from http://bit.ly/7jAGD3

almost 7 years ago

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Peter

Thanks @Juliemarty for that insightful comment...

This is indeed a scary thought, and it is becoming more and more apparent. Legislative people who have little to no idea about online (not judging all), are still allowed to make desicions on how is should be run.

I think it is only a matter of time before someone makes a massive mistake that will cost companies £xxx,xxx,xxx before the masses wake up.

It almost feels like the murdoch google comment, without knowing the game you shouldn't be allowed to make decisions on gameplays.

almost 7 years ago

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Anon

The EU ePrivacy law does not come into effect for 18 months... so Zee-Germans  will not be able to impose ANY fines until then.

No need to worry about it for now.

Also, local law customisations of this legisation will probably change the opt-in to an opt-out on every page instead.

almost 7 years ago

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Richard - Accessibleweb

I doubt very much this will actually happen, but if it does then could it possibly affect not just German websites but other websites that happen to be hosted in Gernany. I use a German host for one of my clients and potentially this could affect them.

almost 7 years ago

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Colin Smith

I wouldn't worry about this too much in reality - Google does have experience of dealing with political 'difficulties', and it really doesn't take too much to explain the reality to anyone believing in the all-seeing eye theory. Of course there is potential to link up all sorts of data, but the higher you take that, the greater the drop-off rates from public and webmasters alike.

Presumably they also wish to make marketing surveys illegal too?

almost 7 years ago

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Peter Ellen

Perhaps they should blindfold German shop keepers as well. When I worked in a record shop we had a customer who used to dress up as Rod Stewart whenever Rod had a new album out. I periodically used this profile information [without his consent] to present him with a Rod Stewart CD when he came into my store in leopard skin hot pants. In this process I combined context, previous transaction behaviour, recognition and inventory re-targeting and made made some assumptions about his aesthetics, which I then cross referenced to my knowledge base of rock fashion. He had a smile of resignation when presented with another re packaged "best of Rod" each year.

 In most cases current laws around PII seem to be sufficent but maybe the issue is it's politcally expedient to have strong views on digital media - it shows you are in touch. I sympathise with the view that data should be held under the legal jurastiction in which it is gathered and organisations holding that data need to have clear process around what constitutes PII in data combinations. But since web marketers cannot see the leopard skin hot pants they need legitimate means to adapt their business to requirements.

almost 7 years ago

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Tony Evans

The actions of the German Government officials exposes the complete idiocy of the laws that under-informed European Bureaucrats are forcing through. Anyone who has followed the machinations of European legislation concerning cookies and the nonsense talked about the possible dangers of behavioural targeting will know how confused they are in Brussels – and now we have evidence that this confusion could have dire repercussions for commercial websites and, ultimately, all web users.

Unless you are a tin-hat wearing conspiracy theorist who hates all forms of advertising (especially, bizarrely, more relevant advertising) the use of anonymous, non-personal data for analytics and behaviourally targeted advertising shouldn’t concern anyone. The online industry has looked long and hard at online privacy recently and taken enormous steps to ensure that the use of web traffic data is clearly explained to web users and poses no threat to their privacy online - even if individuals take no action whatsoever. On top of this, all web users already have the ability to reject cookies (individually or en masse) rendering analytics and behavioural targeting redundant if they choose. European Bureaucrats would do better to spend their time educating web users about their existing choices rather than imposing complex, expensive and draconian laws that affect everyone and will have absolutely no privacy benefit.

almost 7 years ago

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Simon Taylor, Senior Director at Visual Sciences

Per Tony Evans.  I totally agree with you Tony, the fall-out of this type of ill informed conjecture only serves to damage public confidence and perception of what should be a positive fact of life in the web environment.  Surely it is better for all concerned if sites and web properties in general are able to use analytics and personalisation to improve and make their content more relevant to users, also offering targetted help and advise based on such data to generally improve the user's experience.

The explosion of devices like the iPhone and its 'aps' only go to show how much users want to personalise their interactions with the web.  The sooner these bureaucrats take a forward and thorough view at the benefits such tools bring, be it GA or any other similar reporting or data collection tool, the better for everyone.

My 2c's.

almost 7 years ago

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Tellja UK

I work for an online marketing company in Germany. The idea of making Google Analytics illegal is far fetched - the local marketing industry here would/will knock some sense into the ageing politicians - after all, politicians (the right and the left) need the internet (and analytics) to win votes.

almost 7 years ago

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Anonymous

Mark, did you call up one or two of these bureaucrats to see what their thinking is behind this?  (That would be good journalism.)  So many comments use the word 'uniformed'.  Your article could do alot to confirm or dispell that.  And if they really are uninformed, then the analytics associations (or Google) could do something about that.  Do these guys really know what analytics and market research are about or do they have a hidden agenda.  Such as?  Maybe one of the big vendors is fed up trying to compete with 'free'.

almost 7 years ago

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