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.