Search Engines Under Pressure in Europe to Delete Personal Info Quickly

A long anticipated report from the European Commission’s Article 29 Working Party calls on Google and other search engines to drastically cut the amount of time they hold on to user data records.

The independent advisory body stated in the 29-page document that search engines should delete user information such as IP addresses within six months, unless there is a specific reason to do otherwise. If search engines were to keep such data longer, they should notify users of their intent. Google has previously said it would hold on to such data for no more than 18 months.

At the heart of the disagreement is a question of how much privacy Web users are entitled to when using a search engine. Google and other engines claim that user data is essential to optimizing their services. The Article 29 Working Party claims that maintaining such data compromises an individual’s privacy, and that search engines can continue to improve their service without using sensitive data.

The report, dated April 4, also calls for increased user notification of data usage and warns that failing to provide it may violate European Union laws.

Google’s global privacy counsel, Peter Fleischer, responded to the report with a post on the company’s public policy blog. Fleischer maintains 18 months is an appropriate time to retain user data, and that much of that data is being used to develop tools to help protect user identity.

“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,” he wrote. “This perspective — the ways in which data is used to improve consumers’ experience on the Web — is unfortunately sometimes lacking in discussions about online privacy.”

Both Microsoft and Yahoo representatives have stated that they are committed to striking a balance between service optimization and user privacy, but are still reviewing the report.

The report is not legally binding, but the European Commission is widely expected to develop legislation along the lines of its recommendations.

The report also said that search engines should seek user permission before serving up personalized ads, and that data maintained for one purpose, such as search engine optimization, should not be used for another, unrelated purpose, such as security improvements.

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