Press Release

Consumer Group Calls on Google To Match Yahoo!’s Data Retention Policy, Offer Additional Privacy Guarantee; Warns That Personal Data Remains on Search Companies’ Servers

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Wed, Dec 17, 2008 at 3:16 pm

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Santa Monica, CA — Internet giant Google must match new privacy measures announced by search rival Yahoo!, Consumer Watchdog said today, and called on both companies to enact stronger protections to truly guarantee users’ privacy. The nonprofit, nonpartisan consumer group warned the public that even with shorter data retention times, identifiable personal data remains on the search companies’ servers because each point of contact renews the data retention window.

Since many users of Google or Yahoo! return on a daily basis, they are constantly providing a new stream of personal data. Users must be able to control their data and browse anonymously if they choose, the group said. Consumer Watchdog called for a zero retention policy or at least one as good as IXQuick, a search engine company in the Netherlands that says it will delete personal data after 48 hours.

Yahoo! said it would anonymize personal data collected during Internet searches after 90 days. It had previously held the data for 13 months.  In September Google said it would anonymize data after nine months, halving its retention time.  Microsoft stores the information for 18 months, but has said it would move to a six-month retention policy if the other search providers matched the request. Yahoo!’s move is a step in the right direction, but if Google is sincere about commitments to users’ privacy, the company must take further steps, the nonpartisan, nonprofit consumer group said.

“With Google and Yahoo! the time clock begins again every time a user returns,” said John M. Simpson, privacy advocate with Consumer Watchdog. “Because most users return daily, only a zero retention policy and full anonymization will safeguard the privacy of the public.”

To guarantee privacy, Consumer Watchdog has called on Google to give users of its services: 1) control over their private data; 2) transparency about how their data is gathered and used; and, 3) the right to give informed consent through “opt in” functions, rather than having to sift through pages in order to “opt out.”

“Google, as the industry leader, should be setting the gold standard for privacy,” said John M. Simpson, Consumer Advocate with Consumer Watchdog. “Instead they’ve abdicated their responsibilities to users and are leaving innovation to rival Yahoo! who is struggling to stay alive.”

All search companies need to be much more transparent about how they ‘anonymize’ the personal data they have stored, Consumer Watchdog said. “If data is not completely anonymous, this is nothing more than PR,” said Simpson.

View videos that demonstrate how users are in an unnoticed conversation with Google when they use its services at www.consumerwatchdog.org/google.

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Consumer Watchdog, formerly The Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization.

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This post was written by:

John M. Simpson

- who has written 361 posts on Inside Google.

John M. Simpson is a leading voice on technological privacy and stem cell research issues. His investigations this year of Google’s online privacy practices and book publishing agreements triggered intense media scrutiny and federal interest in the online giant’s business practices. His critique of patents on human embryonic stem cells has been key to expanding the ability of American scientists to conduct stem cell research. He has ensured that California’s taxpayer-funded stem cell research will lead to broadly accessible and affordable medicine and not just government-subsidized profiteering. Prior to joining Consumer Watchdog in 2005, he was executive editor of Tribune Media Services International, a syndication company. Before that, he was deputy editor of USA Today and editor of its international edition. Simpson taught journalism a Dublin City University in Ireland, and consulted for The Irish Times and The Gleaner in Jamaica. He served as president of the World Editors Forum. He holds a B.A. in philosophy from Harpur College of SUNY Binghamton and was a Gannett Fellow at the Center for Asian and Pacific Studies at the University of Hawaii. He has an M.A. in Communication Management from USC’s Annenberg School for Communication.

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