By Eric Auchard
Google Inc. is scaling back how long it keeps personally identifiable
data accumulated from its Web users, seeking to mollify a European
Union watchdog that has questioned its privacy policies.
The world's top provider of Web search services said late on Monday
that it is ready to curtail the time it stores user data to a
year-and-a-half, the low end of an 18 to 24 month period it had
originally proposed to regulators in March.
But Peter Fleischer, Google's global privacy counsel said in a letter
addressed to the Article 29 Data Protection Working Party in Brussels
that any regulatory requirement to keep data for less than 18 months
would undermine Google's services.
"After considering the Working Party's concerns, we are announcing a
new policy: to anonymize our search server logs after 18 months,
rather than the previously established period of 18 to 24 months," he
said in the letter dated June 10. The server logs refer to software
that stores Web search histories.
"We believe that we can still address our legitimate interests in
security, innovation and anti-fraud efforts with this shorter period,"
Google is seeking to ease the concerns of regulators in Europe and the
United States, as well as a small, but vocal, chorus of privacy
activists, who see the scope of Google's Web services as posing
unprecedented threats to consumer privacy.
Each time a Google user searches the Web, the company gathers
information about that customer's tastes, interests and beliefs that
could potentially be used by third parties such as advertisers. Google
shares general user statistics but is adamant it never shares personal
data outside the company.
The European Union body, made up of national protection supervisors of
the bloc's 27 member states, said in May that Google seemed to be
failing to respect EU privacy rules and asked for clarification before
its next meeting in mid-June.
Google has sought to take the lead in defining a global standard for
rules governing online retention of consumer data. Other household
Internet names -- including Amazon.com Inc, AOL, Apple Inc., eBay Inc.
Microsoft Corp. and MySpace -- have yet to disclose any limits on how
long they retain consumer data, according to a recent report by
THINKING UP A NEW COOKIE RECIPE
In the May letter, the Working Party also expressed concern about the
length of time Google retains Web surfing tracking data known as
"cookies" and other details on users' searches.
Google said it was studying how it can meet the concerns of European
regulators over cookies, a widely-used consumer tracking technology
that Web sites rely on to customize what users see and advertisers use
to target ads.
"We are exploring ways to redesign cookies and to reduce their
expiration," Fleischer states. "We plan to make an announcement about
privacy improvements for our cookies in the coming months.
In his six-page letter, Fleischer details the trade-offs involved in
limiting how long Google stores its users' data before "anonymizing"
it, industry lingo that refers to the cleansing of computer databases
of personal information.
The Google privacy official notes that the national data retention
policies of individual European nations vary from six months to 24
months, depending on the country.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Justice has called for a 24-month
data retention period, he notes. And post-Enron corporate reforms call
for U.S. businesses to retain data for substantial periods.
Google's aim is to seek out a single agreed-upon level of privacy
protection to users worldwide. Fleischer underscored that it is
"extraordinarily difficult" to operate a global Internet business
according to different national standards.
Google has more than 60 percent of the world's Web search business,
market research groups estimate.
A preliminary report released over the weekend by Privacy
International of London accused Google of being the most hostile to
data protections of any major Internet company, a charge that the
company is seeking aggressively to rebut.
(Additional reporting by Ingrid Melander in Brussels)
Copyright 2007 Reuters Limited.
NOTE: For more telecom/internet/networking/computer news from the
daily media, check out our feature 'Telecom Digest Extra' each day at
http://telecom-digest.org/td-extra/more-news.html . Hundreds of new
articles daily. And, discuss this and other topics in our forum at
For more news and headlines, please go to: