By Peter Fleischer, the global privacy counsel for Google (THE GUARDIAN, 06/12/07):
At Google, we encourage our users to tell us what we are doing right and doing wrong. They take full advantage and have helped improve what we offer and how we operate. It is not possible, of course, for us to answer the question posed by your leader column “Is Google now getting too big for our good?” (Google is watching you, December 3). All we can say is that we operate in a fiercely competitive market. If our users are unhappy, they can go elsewhere with a click of their mouse.
On our acquisition of DoubleClick, a company delivering online advertising, we are happy to wait for the official public-interest inquiries on both sides of the Atlantic. We are confident we can meet their concerns. But “more worrying”, you argue, “are concerns over privacy”. We agree emphatically on the crucial importance of protecting the privacy of our users. In fact, this has been central to everything we have ever done. We constantly examine our policies and practices to see if we can improve safeguards and, in doing so, have driven up standards across the industry.
The Guardian called for “openness about exactly what data Google harbours, how safe it is and what it is used for”. This is exactly what we provide. We also give our users as much choice as we can over the information they share with us through opt-ins and opt-outs.
We hold information only so we can improve the speed and quality of our service. We store the nature, date and time of queries, the internet protocol (IP) address, and an individual cookie showing the user’s preferences. Without the IP address, the information wouldn’t be sent back to the right computer. Without cookies, users would have to tell us each time whether, for instance, they want information in English or French.
We can use their web history to make it more likely we provide the right information – for example, whether a query over Paris Hilton is about celebrity gossip or accommodation – but users must opt in to this sophisticated search facility. We also allow them to delete specific searches and history.
The Guardian claims that “Google holds information about the private activities of its users that the intelligence services would die for”. The truth is the data we collect from search queries doesn’t on its own identify anyone. At most it might narrow down where users live to a city and their service provider. Nevertheless, it is personal in recording the information searched for. Up until recently, such user queries were kept indefinitely; but we now make these logs anonymous after 18 months so searches can’t be linked with a particular computer. This timescale is rapidly becoming the new industry standard. We also have a proud history of fighting for user privacy. Last year, we were the only one of 34 search engines to resist in court – and win – a US Justice Department subpoena for millions of search queries.
Our success has not altered our determination to put our users first, including their privacy. That’s the whole basis on which we run the company and we have no intention of changing it.