The Article 29 Working Party, an EU commission formed around the concept of defining the data protection rights of individuals, published a report last Friday stating that search services have no need to keep personal data beyond a six month period.
Google, whose company policy is an 18 month retention of such data, defended this practice as a necessity for constant improvement of search results.
The group of data protection commissioners that comprise the Article 29 Working found that computer Web addresses and cookie monitoring are personal information that search services should do more to protect.
“It is the opinion of the Working Party that search engines in their role as collectors of user data have so far insufficiently explained the nature and purpose of their operations to the users of their services,” the report states.
“The Working Party does not see a basis for a retention period beyond 6 months,” the study concludes.
Peter Fleischer, Google’s global privacy counsel, in a blog posted on Monday defended his company’s stance on data collection.
“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,” Fleischer wrote.
The Working Party also went as far as to claim that IP information should be viewed as personal information, a point Fleischer took issue with, “The Working Party’s findings also stated that IP addresses should be treated as personal information, with the full weight of data protection laws. Based on our own analysis, we believe that whether or not an IP address is personal data depends on how the data is being used.”
What does the report mean?
Not much right now in terms of law or litigation, but it does show that governments around the world are taking note of the potential privacy issues that have surfaced with the growth of the Internet as a marketing platform.
The issue has trickled into the U.S. as well, and where there is smoke, eventually there will be fire.
The one thing that I note of significant interest in the Working Party’s report is their call for a “six month limit” to data retention, and not an outright ban on behavioral targeting. It is this factor that really makes my end user side turn to my internet marketing side and ask, “Why does Google need to hold on to what I have been doing for 18 months?”
The internet marketing side has no answer.
As someone who exploits the Internet for its marketing benefit I bathe in all of the data available to me, and float along a stream of instant information that has created the most targeted, low cost marketing platform known to man.
But at what cost?
In discussing behavioral targeting on WebProNews.com, Jack Jia made this point:
“In this age of identity theft and mounting concerns over privacy in general, a practice that proactively profiles a user, perhaps over the scope of many websites and over a period of several months, will sound alarms even among the least conservative of us. And while BT advocates will defend their practice of storing only anonymous data — which is the proper thing to do — knowing that your likes, dislikes, shopping history, and viewing tendencies are being tracked and possibly shared or sold to advertisers is disconcerting at the least.”
Google needs to balance its desire to deliver a superior product, to both consumers and advertisers, with its desire to retain brand advocates. Even with a dominant share of the search market it is not certain Google could survive becoming the realization of Orwell’s Big Brother.