Google Launches Global Privacy Crusade
Drawing upon its clout as the Internet's most powerful company, Google Inc. is calling on businesses and regulators throughout the world to adopt international standards for protecting consumer privacy online and offline.
The request, to be unveiled Friday in France, comes as the online search leader battles privacy concerns that threaten its plan to buy Internet ad service DoubleClick Inc. for $3.1 billion.
Mountain View-based Google, which already runs the Internet's most lucrative marketing network, is counting on the purchase to boost its profits by helping sell even more ads.
New York-based DoubleClick collects information about the Web surfing habits of consumers, an activity that has stirred complaints from privacy watchdogs and prompted antitrust regulators to take a closer look at Google's proposed acquisition.
Google already retains information about search requests, which can reveal intimate details about a person's health, finances, sexual preferences and other sensitive topics.
"I don't think there is any question that Google is under enormous pressure to come up with more meaningful privacy standards," said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a strident critic of the DoubleClick deal.
Peter Fleischer, Google's chief privacy officer, said the company's privacy crusade has nothing to do with the DoubleClick deal.
"People look to us to show some leadership and be constructive," Fleischer told a group of reporters a few hours before he was scheduled to outline Google's privacy initiative at a meeting of the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization in Strasbourg, France. "By supporting global privacy standards, there will be a debate and part of that debate will be what our motives are."
Google's call for international privacy rules comes less than two months after Microsoft Corp. and IAC/InterActiveCorp's Ask.com jointly urged its rivals to collaborate an industrywide standard.
Privacy laws now vary widely from country to country, causing chronic headaches for Internet companies like Google that operate around the world. In the United States alone, dozens of states have conflicting laws addressing privacy.
About three-fourths of the world's population isn't governed by any concrete privacy laws, Fleischer said.
Creating an international privacy standard may be easier said than done, said Lauren Weinstein, co-founder of People For Internet Responsibility, a policy group.
"People being people, and sovereign nations being sovereign nations, there are always going to be very different views on privacy matters," Weinstein said. "Even if you can agree on a basic concept, then you have to find it a way to get into all the countries' laws. It doesn't seem like this will be a short-term project."
Google Chairman Eric Schmidt will underscore the company's hopes for more uniform privacy protections in an upcoming public appearance, Fleischer said. He declined to provide further details about the timing or content of Schmidt's planned remarks.
The company has already met with rivals Yahoo Inc. and Microsoft, as well as a few European regulators to rally support for international privacy rules, Fleischer said. He plans to meet with Canada regulators later this month.
"To be effective, privacy laws need to go global," Fleischer said in his prepared remarks. "But for those laws to be observed and effective, a realistic set of standards must emerge. It is absolutely imperative that these standards are aligned to today's commercial realities and political needs, but they must also reflect technological realities."
The speech offered few specifics on how to orchestrate an international privacy accord. In his remarks, Fleischer said a privacy framework developed by the 21-country Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, or APEC, could provide a solid foundation for a more far-reaching global approach.
The APEC principles emphasize security safeguards, imposing limitations on how much personal information can be collected and a commitment to protect the integrity of the data that is gathered. Fleischer acknowledged one significant hurdle must be overcome: China, the world's most populous country, doesn't support the APEC framework.
All the major search engines have a financial motive to foster consumer trust because they collect personal data so they can customize online ads catering to the tastes and interests of each visitor. The more relevant that search engines can make ads, the more money they stand to make.
Facing pressure from European regulators, Google got the privacy ball rolling in a new direction earlier this year when it announced plans to regularly remove key pieces of personal information about the search requests stored in its computers.
It then narrowed its time frame for depersonalizing search requests from as long as two years to 18 months -- a standard that Microsoft, which runs the third-most-popular search engine, also has adopted.
Yahoo, which operates the second-most-popular search engine, has gone further by promising to scrub personal information within 13 months -- a standard Time Warner Inc.'s AOL also follows.
InterActiveCorp's Ask.com is going even further by offering its users a tool that will prevent search terms and the Internet addresses of computers from being retained.
Previously, all the search engines had been vague about how long they hold on to the personal information logged from search requests.