By CONSTANT BRAND, Associated Press Writer
An independent European Union panel is investigating whether Google
Inc.'s Internet search engine abides by European privacy rules, which
tend to be stricter than those in the United States.
EU spokesman Pietro Petrucci said Friday that the 28-member panel,
which advises the European Commission and EU governments on data
protection issues, wants Google to address concerns about the
company's practice of storing and retaining user information for up to
"This group has addressed a letter to Google raising a number of
questions," Petrucci said. EU Justice Commissioner Franco Frattini
backs the investigation. "He considers those questions raised by the
letter to be appropriate and legitimate," Petrucci said.
Peter Fleischer, Google's global privacy counsel, said the company was
doing a lot to protect personal data gathered from users on its search
"We believe it's an important part of our commitment to respect user
privacy while balancing a number of important factors, such as
maintaining security and preventing fraud and abuse," Fleischer
said. He added that Google was "committed to engaging in a
Google said it would answer the EU's privacy concerns before the
panel's next meeting at the end of June.
Like many other Web sites, Google deploys threads of computer coding
known as "cookies" to gather insights about its users. Web browsers
can be set to reject cookies, but that move also can limit access to
some Internet services.
Google relies on its cookies to compile logs of the search terms
entered into specific Web browsers as well as other potentially
sensitive online information. The company says the data help its
search engine better understand its users so it can deliver more
relevant results and advertisements.
As Google becomes more knowledgeable about the people relying on its
search engine and other free services, management hopes to develop
more tools that recommend activities and other pursuits that might
appeal to individual users.
Those ambitions disturb many privacy advocates, who fear possible
abuses despite Google's vows to respect and protect the user
information. One of the biggest fears is that a government authority
conducting an investigation or surveillance program might try to pry
into Google's data vault.
The issue came up last year when Google successfully fought a U.S.
Justice Department subpoena seeking a long list of search requests made
by its users. The owners of three other major search engines -- Yahoo
Inc., Microsoft Corp.'s MSN and Time Warner Inc.'s AOL -- surrendered
some of the information sought by the government.
The EU move follows recent action in the United States, where a
consumer group asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate
Google's privacy protections after the company announced a $3.1
billion acquisition of online advertising service DoubleClick Inc.,
EU officials said they had sent a letter last week to Google asking
whether the Mountain View, Calif.-based company had "fulfilled all the
necessary requirements" to abide by European data protection rules.
Officials said the EU panel also asked for information on how Google
retains users' data.
Google's Fleischer said the company needs to log details of user
searches for security purposes -- such as to protect the search
engine from hackers. But he said the company has taken recent measures
to improve user privacy. Server logs, for example, are "anonymized"
after 18 to 24 months.
"We're the only leading search company to have taken this step
publicly," he said.
AP Business Writer Michael Liedtke in San Francisco contributed to this
Copyright 2007 The Associated Press.