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Google Shortens Hold Time on User Data

From now on, or at least until another government complains, Google will anonymize its search server logs after 18 months.

The company made the announcement this week in response to another round of European Union objections. Previously, Google held onto user search data for as long as 24 months, a length of time the company decided on in reaction to past European Union (EU) concerns.

But that still wasn't good enough for the EU. On May 16, the Article 29 Working Party, an advisory panel composed of representatives from all of the EU's national data-protection authorities, sent Google a letter calling 24 months a "step in the right direction," but one that doesn't go far enough.

"The new storage period of 18 to 24 months does not seem to meet the requirements of the European legal data protection framework," Working Party chairman Peter Schaar wrote in the letter at the time. "The Article 29 Working Party would like further clarification as to why this long storage period was chosen."

Schaar also asked Google to explain the "google cookie," which can remain on a user's computer for 30 years.

Google Privacy Counsel Peter Fleischer wrote that the practice helps the company improve its search algorithms, defend itself against "malicious access and exploitation attempts," fight click fraud and spam, protect users against phishing, help law enforcement prosecute "serious crimes like child exploitation," and finally, comply with other governments' laws.

Addressing the Working Party's cookie concerns, Fleischer wrote that Google believes cookie data management in a user's browser is "fundamentally a browser/client issue, not a service/server issue" and that cookies should not expire so often as to "force users to re-enter basic preferences (such as language preferences)" with any regularity.

Nevertheless, Google will announce privacy improvements for its cookies in the coming months, according to Fleischer.

With its ever-increasing power and influence on and off the Internet, Google spends a fair amount of time answering for the ways it utilizes user data. Most recently there's been an uproar over the new Street View feature in Google Maps, which some call voyeuristic.

Before that, Google's most public privacy battle was its 2006 skirmish with the U.S. Department of Justice (DoJ) over a subpoena seeking an index of millions of URLs and a week's worth of search data. In the end, a U.S. District Court ruled Google would have to turn over the log of 50,000 URLs to the DoJ, but not any of the data on 5,000 search queries the DoJ originally requested.

In his letter to the Working Party, Fleischer writes that the answer to privacy questions is balancing interests, "We have engaged in long and serious reflection about the balance that Google, and companies like ours, must strike between competing principles: privacy, security, innovation, and various legal retention obligations.

"Google is committed to the long road of privacy, and to working with you and other privacy stakeholders around the world to continue to advance privacy protections for all Internet users."