EU Expands Search Engine Scrutiny

UPDATED: Memo to Microsoft , Yahoo  and AOL: Watch out. Google is no longer the only search engine under governmental scrutiny for the duration with which it stores data.

One month after the European Union questioned Google’s search data retention practices, the EU’s data protection party probe said it is investigating any Internet search engine it feels is guilty of storing data for too long.

“Taking into account the current situation initiated by the ‘Google case,’ the Working Party will deal with search engines in general, and scrutinize their activities from a data protection point of view, because this issue affects an ever growing number of users,” the EU’s working party said in a statement.

The broadening of the EU’s investigative scope is hardly a surprise.

When a user poses a query to a search engine, the engine socks away data about the user in order to cull more relevant search results for advertising opportunities.

Governmental bodies such as the EU and U.S. Department of Justice are concerned that search user data stored too long in search engines presents a cornucopia of opportunities for hackers to poach data, or that the data may be accidentally leaked, as it was by AOL last August.

Danny Sullivan, editor in chief of Search Engine Land, said the EU should
have looked at the whole industry from the start rather than single out
Google for its data-retention practices.

“In general, I think the effort is fairly surface level anyway, if it
remains all about logs,” Sullivan said. “In that, they are worrying about
data retention from logs that is pretty anonymous; the search engines retain
far more personal data
for far longer. Now, they do this with the user’s permission largely, but
still, perhaps that’s where the policies need to be considered more.”

Sullivan added that he likes the idea of anonymizing user query data.

Google , whose privacy practices were rated among the worst by London’s Privacy International, was the first major search engine to fall under the EU’s scrutiny this year.

After telling the EU’s working party last month that it anonymizes search user data after 18 to 24 months, the EU asked for Google to clarify and improve its retention practices.

Google, which also recently weathered criticism that it’s Street View mapping tool was invasive, responded in June by narrowing its data retention period to 18 months.

The EU said in its latest statement that it would “carefully analyse this reply as well as the privacy policies of other search engines in the coming weeks.”

Google, which makes billions from online advertising thanks largely to its ability to target customers through search data, earlier altered its privacy policy by agreeing not to maintain a database of user queries, IP addresses and cookie details.

While the EU’s scrutiny into Google’s privacy practices is ongoing, the company last year jousted with the 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.

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