63

Almost regularly there is news on this or that US (internet) company that must adapt its practices for European customers, since they tend to be too lax with regards to privacy protection according to EU regulations; while from the US perspective there is no problem.

Why is this generally the case? Why do US citizens and companies tend to be less concerned about privacy with regards to their European counterparts? Is it due to some historical event? Or it simply "is" and there is no major drive to change the status quo?

  • 1
    In Europe, companies have to report exhaustively all the data you store. The problem (for example from Facebook) they do not report all the data they collect, specifically. – Peppo Sep 13 '17 at 12:14
  • That title has got to go. Your question is : why are the privacy policies of European ISPs stricter than the ones in the US. – Mazura Sep 13 '17 at 19:36
  • 5
    @Mazura no, ISPs are not the subject of the question. – Federico Sep 13 '17 at 20:06
  • 18
    @Federico Interesting article. An alternative way to interpret what you see: a huge segment (I daresay majority) of Americans look at regulation, in general, in a negative light. Regulation translates to restriction and while most of us are not entrepreneurs, there is this visceral idea of the self-started American (the so called "American dream") and corporate regulation is often portrayed by industry and politicians as limiting that ideal. In many ways I see a lack of privacy laws being connected with that distrust of restriction. So it's as if we share values but have evolved differently. – DanK Sep 13 '17 at 20:09
  • @DanK that sounds like a decent answer. Why don't you write one by expanding a bit you comment? but please note that I explicitely single out citizens and companies – Federico Sep 13 '17 at 20:12
64

It's not really a matter of privacy itself being taken more seriously in Europe. It's more a matter of a differing view in the proper role of government. In the U.S., at least traditionally, the proper role of the government has been seen to be more limited than in Europe. While this is perhaps somewhat less true today than 200 years ago, it has still been true to a large degree for the entire existence of the U.S. This includes less government limitations on what contracts private parties (whether individuals, private organizations, or businesses) are allowed to enter into with each other.

Since government limitations on what data Internet companies can store on users (with the permission of the user) is inherently a limitation on what contracts private entities may enter into with each other, the U.S. has been more reluctant than Europe to create such limitations, just as it is with other limitations on private contracts (or private actions in general.)


When it comes to privacy protection from the government, the situation is different. For example, even in a criminal case where all of the standards for a search warrant are met, you cannot be legally compelled to supply a password or encryption key in the U.S., while in Europe you can be so compelled. In the U.S., this is considered a violation of the 5th Amendment, which, among other things, says that you can't be forced to be a witness against yourself. (Edit: As Dan pointed out in the comments, apparently a circuit split now exists with regard to this in the U.S., so the issue will likely end up being addressed by the Supreme Court.)

In addition to the protections granted in the 5th Amendment, the 4th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states that:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

In general, this bans the government from searching or seizing without your consent any of your property or communications (or yourself) without a warrant showing that you've probably committed or are about to commit a specific crime and specifically describing what can be searched or seized (and this is interpreted by courts to only extend to things which could reasonably by construed to be likely to provide evidence of that specific crime.)

  • 30
    UK is not exactly illustrative of how continental Europeans view privacy protection though. On many grounds they're worse than their US cousins when it comes to attitudes towards it (their large scale video surveillance and massive data banks would be unthinkable in most if not all countries on the other side of the Channel), and they'd likely enjoy less protection were it not for EU laws. If anything I'd wage that privacy conscious citizens will deeply regret the EU-related protections post-Brexit. – Denis de Bernardy Sep 13 '17 at 17:52
  • 1
    @DenisdeBernardy Yeah, I was comparing mostly to EU-wide regulations, since that's what the question asked about. Of course, different countries within the EU may have more strict regulations and those vary from one country to another (and the same is true for U.S. states.) – reirab Sep 13 '17 at 19:11
  • 6
    @reirab there is an EU person data protection directive, which is mandatory starting next May for all member states and which equalises the fines for breaking the privacy law to be 4% of the turnover of the whole group of the companies by the way. Down here everyone is on their toes to change the software and operating procedures in next 6 months. – Gnudiff Sep 13 '17 at 20:12
  • 3
    @DanNeely Yes, Congress could make it explicitly illegal, but they can't make it legal. – reirab Sep 13 '17 at 20:20
  • 5
    I think it's a mistake to view it as contrary-to/missing the point of the 5th amendment. Both in terms of the way users feel about it, and the actual mathematical reality, encrypted data storage is akin to an extension of one's personal (in-brain) memory, not a "locked box of papers". – R.. Sep 15 '17 at 18:33
78

Several EU states endured surveillance by secret police in the past (for instance in Nazi Germany or Eastern Germany), making privacy a sensitive enough topic that constituents demanded strict protection from future large-scale surveillance attempts. In complying with these requests, law makers also ensured that it wouldn't be possible for a State to work around these rules by resorting to the private sector. It was then a natural step to enshrine privacy protection at the EU level.

Another factor that feeds into the attitude is that Europeans have an example across the Atlantic of how things can go wrong when there's very little privacy protection. Put bluntly, it's not appealing.

The US, by contrast, never experienced an oppressive secret police - however close the FBI might have come to that description under Hoover. There are some provisions and laws at both the State and Federal levels aimed at guaranteeing privacy, and some legal chatter about it every now and then, but nothing firmly set in stone (except for medical data, and prohibition from spying on US citizens that has been progressively diluted - or indeed, ignored - since 9/11).

Edward Snowden exposed US government operated large scale surveillance activities, which has heightened public awareness about the issue. But these have never reached the point where there are widespread fears about the police showing up at your doorstep, arresting you, and abusively keeping you locked up or worse for arbitrary reasons. Nor has that point been reached by neighboring states or while under occupation by an enemy force. So things progress slowly.

  • 23
    Also relevant that the UdSSR ended not that long ago. For some current EU officials the downsides of excessive surveillance are not simply cultural knowledge, but actual personal experience. – Peter Sep 13 '17 at 15:23
  • 14
    I'm sorry but this answer shows no familiarity with American history or culture. You have completely disregarded America's cultural distrust of government (dating back to its Revolution), its structured dichotomy of state vs. federal law (the gov't doesn't trust itself), its love affair with free speech and the gun (directly tied to gov't distrust), and the historical abuses against large minority populations (which stir distrust to this day in the form of huge political movements). You are working off of a flawed premise that Americans somehow value their privacy less. – DanK Sep 13 '17 at 19:26
  • 28
    @DanK They may value their privacy very highly in theory, but the OP's question shows that in practice their privacy appears to be less protected than in EU. – Gnudiff Sep 13 '17 at 20:04
  • 25
    @DanK I don't see many protests about the Equifax breach, despite being it a disastrous breach of the privacy and economic safety of a good chunck of the US population. And I don't expect that company to be punished in any way for their complete lack of safeguards aimed at protecting that data. You might distrust your government, we distrust also private companies. – Federico Sep 13 '17 at 20:10
  • 11
    I think what this answer really misses is that even though privacy is highly valued in the US (the fourth amendment to the constitution is about privacy), the privacy in question is privacy from the government, not from businesses. Also the "free market" is highly valued in America, so many are unhappy with the idea of regulating how businesses gather and keep "private" information. Basicslly, we want to be able to sell our data to any company or enterprise, and we also want our private data to never be given to the federal government. – Todd Wilcox Sep 14 '17 at 4:48
30

This is largely a cultural difference in the value of privacy with respect to independent companies. The U.S. constitution offers no provisions directly for privacy; it is implied by the 3rd, 4th, 5th and 10th amendments that citizens have some level of privacy from the government. The EU government takes privacy more seriously, and has passed laws that force compliance and don't allow contracts to waive certain rights unlike in the U.S. The U.S. also was founded on a fundamental distrust of government that still exists in some degree today, and that mistrust prevents laws allowing the government to enforce privacy to the same degree.

There is also the matter that the U.S. laws are to some degree outdated with respect to the modern web framework and they aren't equipped to handle scenarios where companies can gather and process the amount of information that they can today. The EU has updated/passed a lot of regulation in the past few years giving them a better framework to handle modern needs with respect to the Internet. Between general incompetence of U.S. politicians and corporate lobbying, it's unlikely they will have any sort of overhaul anytime soon. Additionally, companies have been careful in the U.S. to not allow legal precedent to be set in a number of cases by settling them before rulings can be made.

  • 2
    I'm sorry if the way I phrased the question is unclear. I'm afraid that this is not really answering my question. I know/understand that there is a difference in the laws/constitution, my question is "where does this difference come from?" If the answer is the "cultural" one you refer in your first sentence, I'd like to ask you to expand on it. – Federico Sep 13 '17 at 12:28
  • 1
    I agree with "The U.S. also was founded on a fundamental distrust of government that still exists in some degree today" but I don't see how it follows that "that mistrust prevents laws allowing the government to enforce privacy...." I'd think people who don't trust the government would demand laws to protect their privacy. – Adrian McCarthy Sep 13 '17 at 18:37
  • 8
    @AdrianMcCarthy Laws to protect their privacy from the government, yes (and such a law has existed as long as the U.S. has existed - the 4th Amendment.) Laws limiting what contracts private parties can make with each other, however, are another matter. – reirab Sep 13 '17 at 18:42
  • 4
    @reirab: Except that the U.S. has a third-party doctrine, so that almost any data a private party collects about you is essentially available to the government. So if people the mistrust the government enough to pass privacy restrictions to keep their data from the government, then they'd also need similar restrictions on third party collectors as well. – Adrian McCarthy Sep 14 '17 at 19:45
  • 2
    @reirab: Or an NSL, or an administrative subpoena. But in practice that doesn't matter because the third-parties are likely to willingly give it. Often the third-party doesn't have any privacy interest in the data they keep about others. Additionally, the government can often offer incentives (both carrots and sticks) to get them cooperate. By not limiting surveillance by private parties, we enable the government to easily access private data. If people don't trust the government, then they should wrest control of their data away from the third-parties as well. – Adrian McCarthy Sep 14 '17 at 22:17
12

My understanding is that this is because, culturally speaking:

  • Europeans fundamentally trust governments and rely on them to keep others in check
  • Americans fundamentally distrust governments and feel it necessary to keep them in check

That's basically the gist of it. (And of course this is just an average tendency, not necessarily true for every individual person or every individual government.)

How does this translate to privacy?

  • Europeans would rather let the government know the truth about their identities (e.g. to issue national ID cards or the equivalent) and limit business practices to what is generally necessary.

  • Americans would rather let the government know as little as possible (lest the government use this information against them) and instead let businesses have their freedom.

The reason for this fundamental difference in trust is historical, but I don't feel confident enough about the precise details to try to explain the history here—History.SE might be better for that.

  • 6
    I'm not sure trust is quite the right term (as a general English word, as opposed to the more technical sense in which trusting someone is equivalent to being vulnerable to them harming you). A significant number of European countries have been either dictatorships or occupied territories in living memory, neither of which promotes trusting government as an institution. And in that light, it's worth noting that European privacy expectations and laws extend to government use of data as well as commercial use. – Peter Taylor Sep 15 '17 at 11:39
  • 1
    I don't think Europeans fundamentally trust governments. Recent political scandals have decreased respect for politicians. As Peter says many Europeans have been subjugated under dictatorships and occupation and were forced to operate under restrictive regulations. I.e. regulation is "normal" and thus if something isn't regulated it feels abnormal, even though oppressive regulation reduces personal freedom. – Daniel S. Fowler Sep 15 '17 at 14:07
6

There's one thing I didn't see in the other answers, that I think is extremely relevant too. These are US companies entering a European domain; this is a foreign entity to them, and foreign entities, even in the US, have a lot more privacy concerns and regulations than domestic entities.

That's not saying there isn't some difference in our laws, but I think that can explain a general difference in opinion for a company like...Google. Google, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, Yahoo, etc., are American companies, so Americans, for better or worst tend to trust them more than Europeans do.

I think in general, as an American and knowing other Americans, if you see a Chinese, Russian, European, or Indian based company, we tend to trust it less ourselves.

  • 7
    And a company in the EU has strict rules, which apply to the data of all its customers. In the US the rules apply mostly to US customers. The NSA say more or less open, that they "only spy on foreign people". Yep, and that's why EU citizen like their data to lie on EU servers. That's why the safe harbor agreement fell. The US government could not promise that there will be no access by agencies. – allo Sep 15 '17 at 13:32
2

In general, Europe tends to have more regulations than the United States in regards to almost everything. This is just one more example of that. There is also a certain conflict in the US between the public right to information and the individual right to privacy. In Europe the latter seems to have firmly won out. In the US the battle goes on.

  • 6
    "Europe tends to have more regulations than the United States". Do you have any sources for that? – Steve Smith Sep 14 '17 at 8:18
  • 10
    I am wondering the same as Steve. And about how to weigh such regulations. Is it a regulation that borders within the EU have to be open? I guess so; but it ensures I can pass borders unregulated. As a counter-example, when I travelled to the US for the first time, it totally felt like Fortress America. Nobody has my fingerprints, except the US. No other country ever asked me if I have arab friends. Except the US. Am I addicted to some pharmaceutical for health reasons? Netherlands didn't care. France didn't care. Portugal didn't care. The US did. – Sebastian Mach Sep 14 '17 at 8:24
  • 1
    @SebastianMach Comparing borders within the E.U. to U.S. external borders isn't really a fair comparison, though. Freedom of movement within the U.S. is almost completely unlimited and you will certainly never be asked such questions (or normally any questions) when you're traveling within the U.S. The borders within the U.S. consist of a sign (and possibly a change in the quality of the pavement.) – reirab Sep 15 '17 at 19:39
  • @reirab: You're right. I'll add Suisse to the list of countries that did not ask these questions, which is not member of the EU. And, long gone are those days though, Austria before 1995. Friends told me also that New Zealand and Australia are nothing compared to the US, and from looking at information online, I could be there within days, without having to swear that I am not planning an act of terror. [...] – Sebastian Mach Sep 16 '17 at 12:15
  • 1
    [...] However, I apologize for leading this off topic. My (and Steve's) comments were really asking for sources for the claim that the EU is more regulatory than the US, and in which regards this is better or worse for personal liberty. – Sebastian Mach Sep 16 '17 at 12:17

protected by Philipp Sep 14 '17 at 20:09

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.