EU Welcomes Google Offer on Privacy

EU justice chief Franco Frattini said Wednesday that Internet search leader Google Inc. had offered to cut the time it retains data on user searches from the current 24 months to 18 months amid growing concerns it could be violating EU privacy rules.

The EU justice and home affairs commissioner welcomed a letter sent by Google officials to an independent EU data protection panel earlier this week in which the company said it would raise its data privacy standards for all users.

"It is indeed a good step, I have appreciated the commitment of Google not only to meet our expectations in terms of protection of privacy or better on cutting the time and reducing the time of retention of personal data," Frattini said.

He said he also expected Google to answer soon on other concerns raised by EU experts, notably on the specific use of cookies, threads of computer coding used by Google and other Web sites to collect insights about what sites people visit.

In the letter, Peter Fleischer, Google's global privacy counsel, said the company "is committed to raising the bar on our own privacy practices for the benefit of Google users."

He said the company would delete server logs on searches carried out by users after 18 months.

Fleischer said the reduced retention period of logs and cookies "has a sound legal and practical basis and strikes the right balance."

He added that Google was going further than other Web sites some of which keep user records indefinitely and said Google's retention periods "complies with" EU data privacy rules.

Fleischer said however, that it was hard for Google to decipher the EU's complex set of data protection laws. He said there was no clear cut guidelines or set time periods on retention of personal data for companies to follow on how to adequately apply user protections.

"There is tremendous confusion in legal circles across Europe on these issues," Fleischer said. "Both individuals and companies would benefit from greater clarity from authorities responsible for the (EU) Data Retention Directive to answer these very fundamental questions."

Google relies on its cookies and user logs to compile information 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.

The 28-member data protection panel, which advises the European Commission and EU governments on data protection issues, had demanded Google answer concerns about the company's practice of storing and retaining user information for up to two years.

The EU investigation into Google comes amid growing concerns over the California-based companies privacy practices.

London-based Privacy International last week rated Google the worst among the Internet's top destinations on privacy.

The watchdog said it was particularly troubled by Google's ability to match data gathered by its search engine with information collected from other services such as e-mail, instant messaging and maps.

Plans to develop more tools that expand information collected on users of its search engine disturb 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.

Google's store of Web pages, its cache, was the focus of legal action by some Belgian newspapers last year that claimed the search engine broke copyright laws by allowing users access for free archived pages the newspapers sell as premium content.

A Brussels court ruled in February that the company must remove headlines and links to news stories posted on Google News and stored in the cache without the copyright owners' permission. The court has yet to rule when exactly Google started complying fully with Belgian law and whether it would be liable for reroactive fines.