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Google to call for web privacy shake-up

FT.com | September 14, 2007
Maija Palmer

Google will on Friday attempt to take the high ground in the debate over internet privacy, by calling for new international laws to be set up to protect personal information online. An international body such as the United Nations or the OECD should draw up new guidelines, Peter Fleischer, global privacy counsel for Google will tell Unesco members at a conference in Strasbourg on Friday.

Google has become a focal point for a debate on internet privacy since European Union data protection bodies earlier this year questioned the length of time the company kept data on individuals using its search engine. Google was also criticised by Privacy International, the human rights group, as being potentially “hostile” to privacy.

Since then, Google has taken steps to improve its image. It agreed to limit the time it keeps search data to just 18 months, and has started working with Privacy International in order to be removed from the organisation's blacklist.

Going further on the offensive, Mr Fleischer on Friday will say he believes existing internet privacy rules are out of date. The OECD's guidelines on privacy and personal data, for example, were set up in 1980, well before the invention of the internet, and even the European Commission directive on privacy dates back to 1995, when the internet was still in its infancy.

“Privacy laws have not kept up with the reality of the internet and technology, where we have vast amounts of information and every time a credit card is used online, the data on it can move across six or seven countries in a matter of minutes,” Mr Fleischer told the Financial Times ahead of his speech.

Eric Schmidt, chief executive of Google, is expected to add his voice to the campaign over the next few weeks.

Google is proposing that the privacy framework adopted in Asia by ministers at the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation conference in 2004 could be used as a basis of a broader, international agreement. The Apec agreement is relatively loose, setting out general principles, such as notifying individuals when their data is collected, but leaving enforcement up to individual countries.

Simon Davies, director of Privacy International, said: “There seems to be a perceptible shift within the company. Over the past few months it seems that senior people have understood that privacy issues can affect the value of the company.”

Mr Davies said the steps Google was taking were “symbolically huge and significant, but whether they have any meaning beyond that, no one can yet tell”.

Analysts say it is crucial for Google to maintain an impeccable reputation on privacy, or it may begin losing users.

A number of smaller search engine companies are already using the recent concerns over Google's data policies as an opportunity to poach users.

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