Moonstruck Google Gets High-Minded About Web Privacy

17 September 2007

MOUNTAIN VIEW, California: Conscious perhaps of Sergey and Brin's maxim, 'You can make money without doing evil', Google on Friday called for new international laws to protect personal privacy online.

The bugle was blown by Google privacy counsel Peter Fleischer, addressing a UNESCO talkfest in Strasbourg on Friday, in what was probably a pre-emptive strike against further privacy flak directed at the search titan.

Conscious that in ad-reliant businesses consumer confidence fuels the bottom line, widespread public criticism has already prompted Google to start putting its house in order.

Bowing to pressure applied by human rights group Privacy International and others, Google reduced its data-retention period from indefinite to eighteen months. It also agreed to work with PI to ensure its removal from that organisation's blacklist.

On Friday Fleischer switched from defensive to offensive mode, telling delegates that an international body such as the UN or OECD should draw up new internet privacy guidelines.

He pointed out that existing privacy rules date back to 1980 when the internet was still a laboratory concept at CERN particle physics laboratory in Switzerland. Even the European Commission directive on privacy dates back to 1995, when the internet was still a toddler.

Said Fleischer: "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."

He suggested that a 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.

However, some would argue that this agreement is conveniently non-specific, setting out general principles, such as notifying individuals when their data is collected but with a laissez-faire attitude to enforcement.

PI director Simon Davies appeared unimpressed, although hailing the steps taken by Google as "symbolically huge and significant". "But," he added, "whether they have any meaning beyond that, no one can yet tell".

  • Google Puts Up $30m Lunar-Landing Prize
    Sufficient to gain useful publicity but inadequate to fund a fraction even of the cost of winning, Google has offered a $30 million (€21.66m; £14.95m) prize for the first private space mission on the moon

    To win, a robotic rover will have to travel at least 500 metres across the moon's surface and beam back video and other data to Earth.

    Cynics suggest that in addition to publicity value, Google's lunar-cy may not be unconnected with the deal it recently struck with NASA to park its private jet on the space agency's nearby airfield.

    Data sourced from Financial Times; additional content by WARC staff