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Privacy: Google to call for new laws

September 14, 2007 18:41 IST

Google, the search giant under fire from various quarters over privacy issues, will later on Friday call for new international laws to protect personal information online.

Agencies quote the company's global privacy counsel, Peter Fleischer, as likely to tell UNESCO members during an ongoing conference in Strasbourg that such laws should be drawn up by a global body such as the United Nations, or the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Google has been at the receiving end of privacy concerns on a number of counts. Critics, for instance, point to the privacy implications of a central, hugely popular data storehouse of what millions of users are searching for -- data that Google can, willingly or under subpoena, hand over to the government of any country that the company serves.

The cookies Google uses to track users and their search strings are, critics have argued, set with distant expiration dates; another allegation is that searches are recorded, without permission, for advertising purposes.

Data protection officials of the European Union are currently probing Google's policy of keeping information on the searches by individuals for periods of up to two years. As recently as June 1, Google admitted publicly that its privacy policy is `vague'.

Privacy advocates also argue that Google's mail program has built in privacy issues, because Google scans the content of mails to serve up context specific ads. Users of Gmail are, by agreeing to the terms and conditions of use, effectively accepting such scanning - but when someone uses a non-Gmail account to mail someone who uses Gmail, that mail is also scanned, though the sender has not agreed to those terms and conditions.

Privacy International, in its 2007 Consultation Report, ranked Google as 'Hostile to privacy' -- the lowest possible ranking; Google became the only company on that list to achieve that rank.

The spate of news stories naming the company in privacy-related concerns has forced Google to take drastic steps to improve its image. As a first step, agencies point out, Google has reduced the time it keeps search data to 18 months, reducing by six months the previous two year limit.

It is currently working with Privacy International to address that body's concerns, and to get its name removed from the blacklist.

Agencies suggest that spokesperson Fleischer will today argue that Internet privacy rules are out of date. The OECD's guidelines on privacy and personal data, it will be pointed out, were drafted in 1980, before the invention of the Internet. Even the European Commission directive on privacy dates back to 1995, when the Internet was still in its infancy, the company will argue.

The Financial Times quotes Fleischer as saying, '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.'

Fleischer's is merely the first salvo, agencies suggest. Google CEO Eric Schmidt is slated to add his voice to the campaign in coming weeks. Company bigwigs will in concert propose that the privacy framework adopted in Asia by ministers at the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation conference in 2004 could be the basis of a broader, international agreement.

'There seems to be a perceptible shift within the company,' Simon Davies, of Privacy International, is quoted as saying. 'Over the past few months it seems that senior people have understood that privacy issues can affect the value of the company.'

Agencies quote analysts as saying Google needs to clean up its act on the privacy front, and that a failure to do so could cost an erosion of its user base. Already, analysts point out, smaller search engine companies are using these concerns to woo users away from the goliath of search engines.