Search groups announce concessions in privacy policies

Yahoo and Microsoft are preparing to announce concessions in their privacy policies in the next few weeks, as pressure mounts in Europe over the length of time internet search companies should be allowed to hold personal data.

The Article 29 Working Party, a group of national officials that advises the European Union on privacy policy, last month said it wanted to investigate how long companies such as Yahoo and Microsoft keep data on individuals who use their search engines.

The Working Party has already been in discussions with Google over its policies for keeping data, and intends to widen scrutiny to the rest of the market.

The Article 29 group is concerned that data kept by search engine companies can be used to identify individuals and create profiles of their preferences.

Although Google dominates the search market, reaching about 70 per cent of the global internet audience, according to Nielsen Net-Ratings, Yahoo Search is used by 22.8 per cent of internet users and Microsoft’s search engine by about 21 per cent.

The news came as it emerged that Google’s $3.1bn bid for DoubleClick, the online advertising company, will be reviewed by the European Commission rather than by several regulators in individual member states.

Julia Holtz, Google’s competition counsel for Europe, said: “Given the pan-European nature of both Google and DoubleClick’s businesses we felt that the Commission – not national regulators – was best placed to review the acquisition. We are pleased that our request has been granted and look forward to making our case to the Commission.”

Google has recently clarified its privacy policies, under pressure from the Working Party, and has agreed to keep search data for no longer than 18 months. It has also agreed to shorten the life of “cookies” – identifier programmes it attaches to individuals’ computers – from 30 years to two.

So far, however, neither Yahoo nor Microsoft has specified any time limits on the data that they hold on users.

They say data are kept for as long as is commercially useful, which means, in practice, some data is stored indefinitely.

They are now expected to announce changes to their policies “within weeks” and to give clear guidance on how long data will be kept.

“We are talking to customers, to the industry and government officials about this, and intend to provide an update in the near future which will more directly give the time frame,” said Brendon Lynch, privacy expert at Microsoft.

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