Names on doorbells? Sorry, not in Europe.
Vienna fears fines over new privacy law
BERLIN — Finding someone’s home in Vienna used to be a fairly simple process. You approached the building, checked for the correct name from the list at the door and then rang the doorbell.
But these are difficult times, and doorbells aren’t an exception.
Across the Austrian capital, last names are being replaced with numbers to conform with a new European privacy law that took effect this year. About 220,000 name tags will be removed in Vienna by the end of the year, the city’s housing authority said. Officials fear that they could otherwise be fined up to $23 million, or about $1,150 per name.
They are acting following a complaint by a tenant, but no court has ruled on whether names on doorbells are a violation of Europe’s tough new privacy laws.
The continent has long been at the forefront of consumer protection laws. While Google Street View blurred the faces of individuals across the world, European users successfully demanded an additional option to have their houses or apartments blurred too. EU watchdogs also regularly investigate American tech giants like Google and Facebook and have shown a more serious commitment to hold them to account over privacy breaches than their U.S. counterparts.
But some critics say that the push toward more privacy has gone too far.
Several U.S. news sites became inaccessible in Europe after the new data protection laws were introduced earlier this year, making it illegal for those papers to harvest data from their readers and resell it. Those companies did not want to risk EU fines (or give up on data harvesting) and instead now block European readers.
Vienna’s doorbell controversy adds another episode to the confusion. Many EUmember states have long had laws that would theoretically have prevented landlords from displaying their tenants’ names outside flats or houses. But for decades, nobody cared about it too much. With privacy issues now being a primary topic of public debate, that’s changing.
But in Europe, a doorbell isn’t just a doorbell. While some countries, including France, Spain and Poland, introduced numbers instead of names decades ago to make things easier, Germany and some other countries upheld the doorbell name tradition. Doorbells are part of a building’s identity and builds community. Everyone knows everyone because the names are right there at the front door.
Doorbells with names push back against the modern-day anonymity of big urban centers, the thinking goes. In Germany, especially, questions over the future of that practice have caused outrage, even among data protection advocates.
“This is absolute idiocy,” Thomas Kranig, head of Bavaria’s data protection agency, told news site Nordbayern.