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Microsoft Offers to Reduce Search Data in Europe

Posted by Manish Agrawal on Tuesday, 9 December, 2008

BERLIN — Microsoft offered Monday to abide by a European privacy panel’s request that it reduce the length of time it kept records of Web searches if its rivals, Yahoo and Google, did the same.

Google and Yahoo, in separate statements, said that for now they were unwilling to change their policies.

Microsoft said it made the offer in a letter to the Article 29 Working Party, a European Commission advisory panel made up of data protection commissioners from each of its 27 member countries. In April, the panel recommended that search engines keep search records no longer than six months before making the data untraceable.

Microsoft’s MSN Live Search currently retains search data for 18 months. Yahoo keeps data for 13 months and Google for 9 months.

The advisory panel was to meet Tuesday and Wednesday, but its members are postponing a decision on whether to take any action against the companies until at least February, when the companies are to make presentations before the panel.

John Vassallo, a lawyer for Microsoft, said Microsoft was not willing to act alone because doing so would create a commercial disadvantage.

“We support the commissioners’ recommendations but are asking them to ensure these are uniformly observed,” said Mr. Vassallo, who is based in Brussels. “Otherwise, to do so unilaterally would put us at a disadvantage.”

Search engine practices are one area in which advanced Web technology is coming into conflict with stricter European privacy rules. German and Swiss officials have also expressed concerns about Google’s Street View map technology, which puts photographs of streetscapes on the Web without the consent of property owners, violating privacy laws in those countries.

In the debate about data retention, the Internet companies have said that records of past searches help them enhance the performance of their search engines. Privacy advocates say the companies are also using the data to compile behavioral profiles on users, which are then used to target advertising, the main source of revenue.

Google was used for 62 percent of online searches in Europe in October, according tocomScore, a research firm in Reston, Va. Yandex, a Russian search engine, handled 3 percent, Yahoo 1.5 percent and MSN 1.4 percent.

Should the discussions reach an impasse, the European panel may ask the commission to intervene. Barring that, individual countries could levy fines on the companies.

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