Even the online ad industry is outraged at PRISM and Tempora. But why?

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The latest twist in the popcorn-worthy Edward Snowden saga is his revelation that the United States has been spying on European Union institutions, and the Germans in particular. This time his claims came out through Der Spiegel, and the reaction has been swift and potentially severe.

So now we have Germany raising the specter of the Cold War and France warning of the possible collapse of major trade talks between Europe and the U.S. Even though there is almost certainly a lot of hypocrisy flying around — Wikileaks told us in 2011 of tight and questionable intelligence cooperation between the U.S. and both Germany and France — growing European condemnation of online surveillance activities is certain to have some kind of fallout.

As we have previously suggested, this fallout could well manifest itself in Europe’s new data protection regulation, which is currently being formulated. For a flavor of how that formulation has been going, check out this recent post by privacy expert Simon Davies.

Davies had been commissioned by the European Parliament to assess the incoming regulation, and he had been poised to deliver a fairly warm report on the proposals — that is, until he became aware of how heavily they were being watered down. Lobbyists representing U.S. web giants and the online advertising industry were, he said, to blame for the insertion of ridiculous new provisions, such as the classification of direct marketing as a legally protected use of personal data on a par with fraud prevention.

Calling out not only the lobbyists but the members of the European Parliament who did their bidding, Davies decided to scrap his report. He said:

“I cannot bring myself to present a temperate report with measured wording that pretends this is all just normal business. It isn’t normal business, and it should never be normal business in any civilized society. How does one talk in measured tones about such endemic hypocrisy and deception?”

Now, square up that scenario with this marvelous blog post, published on Monday. It oozes outrage at the activities of the NSA and the U.K.’s GCHQ, and argues forcefully that “massive surveillance without passing a democratic and transparent process is simply unacceptable.”

And who wrote that nugget of righteous anger? None other than Kimon Zorbas, CEO of IAB Europe – that’s the Interactive Advertising Bureau to you and me. Yes, the PRISM/Tempora scandal is so egregious that the online ad industry is throwing a hissy fit in defense of privacy.

My favorite part:

“… in the pre-internet age letters were sacrosanct. Intercepting and reading a letter was not such an easy thing for policy makers and secret services to do – they needed a warrant on the basis of laws that were adopted by parliaments.”

As opposed to direct marketing companies, which have of course always been allowed to rifle through paper-based correspondence as a way of figuring out what the sender might want to buy. Here’s the line that gives away the IAB’s fundamental fear: “Is the data protection review in Europe the right instrument to fix the problems we face? Probably not.”

The online ad industry is right to be worried. The behavior of the NSA and its partners has been so outrageous that it merits an outraged and effective legal response. And, seeing as leading ad firms such as Google and Yahoo appear to be in bed with the NSA — willingly or not — it’s very hard to see how this response can help protect Europeans against the NSA (and/or their own security services) without also harming the business interests of the advertisers.

In short, the NSA’s activities may not just be bad for the cloud industry. They could also hobble an online marketing industry that was, until a few weeks ago, so very close to lobbying the EU’s privacy laws into insignificance. And what a tragedy that would be.

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