Google to EU: We Use Cookies!

Search Giant Adds Cookie Notification to EU Search Pages, Reverts to Its Old Ad Privacy Icon

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"We use cookies!" That's the declaration Google is making in recent changes to its search home pages and results pages in the European Union.

ALT Google EU cookies

Rules are complex in the EU, as each country has its own approach to regulating data collection via third-party cookies. Recent moves by Google -- including moving away from using the Digital Advertising Alliance icon on its own sites and reverting to the company's own "i" ad information icon -- suggest that the company aims to globalize privacy controls, and is reinforcing its belief that allowing consumers to opt-out from cookie-based data collection satisfies privacy rules.

"Cookies help us deliver our services. By using our services you agree to our use of cookies," states a disclaimer spotted at the bottom of Google search homepages and at the top of search results.

"This is a signal to the market that a very major player like Google is taking cookie consent seriously," said Phil Lee, a privacy lawyer who heads the U.S. office at Field Fisher Waterhouse and is a partner in the firm's London office. The notices began showing up on Google pages this weekend in the U.K., France, Germany and Belgium, according to Mr. Lee.

When users click the notice to learn more, they're taken to a video that explains "How Google uses cookies."

Asked about the changes, Google provided only a general response. "Our top priority is to protect our users' privacy and security, and to give them easy ways to control their information when they use our services," a spokesman said. "This is simply part of that effort."

By adding relatively prominent notice of cookie collection to its search pages, suggested Mr. Lee, Google makes it more difficult for smaller publishers to argue to EU regulators that if Google isn't doing it they don't have to. "If you're a regulator and looking to do meaningful enforcement around cookie consent, the path is clear," said Mr. Lee.

Google is also making some changes here in the U.S. Search results now include a small symbol alongside ads. "These ads are based on your current search terms," says the icon when scrolled over. The symbol links to what appears to be a new "Settings for Google Ads" page. A key distinction: Google is allowing users to opt-out from "tailored ads" on Google properties including Search and Gmail, and separately opt-out from "tailored Google Ads Across the Web," served through its pervasive ad network and exchange.

Unlike most other companies delivering digital ads that use the Digital Advertising Alliance's privacy symbol, Google has its own unique privacy icon -- the "i" in a circle seen next to search ads. Google had phased out that icon in 2011, replacing it with the DAA's AdChoices symbol. It isn't clear why the company has made the change back to the old icon now.

Google has been under regular fire from EU regulators regarding antitrust and privacy issues. Last week six EU countries said they have launched investigations and inspections targeting Google for failure to make changes to its privacy policy requested in October.

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CLARIFICATION: Google has not phased out the DAA AdChoices symbol entirely, continuing to use it on ads seen across its network. Google is using its own "i" icon in search result ads and elsewhere on Google properties. Separately, an earlier version of this article quoted a Google spokesman saying, "We continue to work cooperatively with the European Commission." That statement was provided by mistake by the spokesman and referred to a different issue. .

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