Google concedes in EU battle over privacy

Last updated at 10:31 13 June 2007

Google is scaling back how long it keeps its customers' data to mollify a European Union watchdog that has questioned its privacy policies.

The world's top provider of Web search services has agreed to cut the time it stores web user data to a year-and-a-half.

It had originally proposed to regulators in March that it hold on to information for up to 24 months.

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.

But Peter Fleischer, Google's global privacy counsel has now written to EU data protection chiefs and said:

"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."

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," Fleischer added.

But he also noted that the privacy policies of individual European nations vary from six months to 24 months.

A preliminary report released over the weekend by Privacy International of London accused Google, which has an estimated 60 per cent of the world's web search business, of being the most hostile to data protections of any major Internet company,

Google wants to rid itself of that reputation among regulators in Europe and the United States, as well as a vocal group of privacy activists.

The European Union Article 29 working party, 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.

The organisation 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 concerns over cookies, a widely-used 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.

Google has sought to take the lead in defining worldwide rules governing online retention of consumer data.

Other household Internet names - including 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 Privacy International.

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