EU to Google: this is how the cookie crumbles

8 Apr 2008

Internet search engines like Google and Yahoo! are under pressure following a recommendation to reduce the amount of time they store Europeans’ data from 12 months plus to six months maximum to comply with EU data protection and e-Privacy directives.

Search engines need to question the tracking methods they use, such as user ID, cookie ID or IP addresses, and how much user information they retain and to what purpose, says the report from the Article 29 Working Party, an independent European advisory body on data protection and privacy.

The report outlines what it sees as the responsibilities of these search engines in their role as data controller.

The objective of the report, ‘Opinion on data protection issues related to search engines’, is to “strike a balance between the legitimate business needs of the
search engine providers and the protection of the personal data of internet users.

Ultimately the report is calling for all search engines to clearly outline to the user what data is been taken, why it is being taken and what use it is intended for, as well as how long it will be stored for.

Google, which holds personal information for up to 18 months, has responded to this Article 29 recommendation by defending its own data retention policies.

Peter Fleischer, at Google’s Global Privacy Counsel, said yesterday that storing cookies for up to 18 months was and is a necessary step in improving the relevance of the company’s searches.

“Today, a Google search is far more likely to provide you with the information you’re looking for than it did a few years ago. This has not happened by accident,” said Flesicher on Google’s public policy blog.

“It is the result of our engineers painstakingly analysing the patterns in our server logs to improve the relevance of our searches. At the same time, we have developed privacy policies designed to give users choices over the information they share with us.”

Google also broached the issue of a user’s IP address and claimed that this was not a clear-cut issue. Whether it constituted private data or not depended on how the data was being used, it said.

Other search engines have different privacy policies: Yahoo! makes its search log anonymous after 13 months, in comparison to Google’s retention period of 18 months.

By Marie Boran