Can Europe Save Privacy?

The European Commission has taken legal action against Phorm, a company using deep packet inspection to sell advertisements based on where people surf the web according to the BBC today. The EC alleges that Phorm has intercepted private data without clear consent from a user, a violation of EU privacy laws. The EC is getting involved despite the fact that last year the UK’s Home Office had said Phorm doesn’t violate the nation’s privacy laws. Apparently the EC feels that the UK should look again. Phorm is just one example of Europe’s dogged efforts to keep consumer’s data private in an increasingly transparent world.

Companies from Google (s GOOG) to Facebook have found themselves subject to strict scrutiny of their data collection and retention policies across the Atlantic. Google’s Street View service that displays pictures of locations was delayed in the UK, while Facebook was held to task for not deleting a user’s profile when they quit the service. Even as the borders between nations erode thanks to our ability to connect seamlessly over the web, national laws and regulations still maintain important cultural boundaries. Such a patchwork of legal obligations can slow innovation of web-based technologies from Street View to cloud computing, but sometimes taking a pause to think about all the ramifications of a new technology can make it better. In the case of privacy on the web, Europe’s efforts are a welcome interference in the business of targeted advertising.