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EU takes web search groups to task

08 апреля 2008

Google, Microsoft and other online search companies could be forced to tighten further their privacy controls after an influential European Union privacy group found that existing safeguards did not sufficiently protect users’ personal information.

An opinion published by the Article 29 Working Party, a group of national officials who advise the EU on privacy issues, found that search companies “have so far insufficiently explained the nature and purpose of their [data collection] operations to the users of their services”.

The opinion also clarified how the EU’s data protection laws should apply to search engine companies. It could force search groups to change the way they compile and analyse internet “cookies”, IP addresses and other data that can be used to create a profile of users’ online habits.

The working party’s report came several months after Google, Microsoft and other leading search groups sought to head off tighter regulation by announcing stronger privacy measures.

Google, for example, last year reduced the time it holds on to internet “cookies” – small files that can be used to track internet users as they move from website to website – to two years. It had previously stored such information indefinitely.

In its opinion, the working party applauded search companies’ recent privacy moves. But it also argued that existing controls did not go far enough.

“The fact that leading companies in the field have been able to reduce their retention periods suggests that the previous terms were longer than necessary,” the group said, adding that it did not see a “basis for a retention period beyond six months”.

Google and others have argued that they need to hold on to some private user data in order to better refine search results and cut down on fraud.

Microsoft could not be reached for comment.

Peter Fleischer, Google’s chief privacy counsel, said that Google was “pleased to have the chance to contribute fully to the working party’s inquiry and consider their report a welcome contribution to the continuing debate in this important area”.

However, in comments on Google’s public policy blog, he appeared to challenge some of the working party’s conclusions.

“We believe that data retention requirements have to take into account the need to provide quality products and services for users, like accurate search results, as well as system security and integrity concerns,” Mr Fleischer wrote.

Nevertheless, he welcomed the group’s findings, published on Friday, as an “important step in an ongoing dialogue about protecting user privacy online”.

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