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Europe’s privacy laws are now so tough, they are taking names off doorbells in Vienna

A European Union flag outside the European Council headquarters in Brussels on Oct. 17, 2018. (Francisco Seco/AP)
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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 far-reaching European privacy law that took effect earlier 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 single tenant, but no court has so far ruled on whether names on doorbells are indeed a violation of Europe’s tough new privacy laws. Vienna’s housing authority did not respond to calls on Friday.

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. E.U. 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.

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But some critics say that the push toward more privacy has gone too far. Several U.S. news sites — including the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times — became inaccessible in Europe after the new data-protection law was 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 E.U. fines (or give up on data harvesting) and instead now block European readers.

Vienna’s doorbell controversy adds another episode to the confusion. Many E.U. member states have long had laws that would theoretically have prevented landlords from displaying their tenants' names outside apartments or houses. But for decades, nobody cared about it too much. With privacy issues now a primary topic of public debate, that is 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 build 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, the head of Bavaria’s data-protection agency, told news site Nordbayern.

But researchers who have embarked on a journey into the depths of doorbell sciences have come up with serious arguments beyond privacy against listing names outside apartments. In a 2014 journal article on the nexus between ethnicity and place of residence in Europe, researcher Astrid Ouahyb Sundsbø described how some prospective tenants examined names on doorbells to identify an ethnically homogeneous area to settle in. Hence, removing doorbell names in major cities such as Berlin or London could potentially diversify districts.

While there might be valid arguments in favor of getting rid of names that are on display for anyone passing by, privacy isn’t one of them, E.U. officials themselves have already indicated amid the heated debate this week. There are no plans to sue anyone.

But that won’t stop authorities in Vienna from walking the extra mile, from house to house, from doorbell to doorbell. One name at a time.

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