Search engines are a hot topic at the moment, especially for governments wanting to regulate them in one way or another. The most recent tension came from Pakistan's decision that it will monitor Google, Bing, Yahoo (and other sites) for blasphemous content. Now it is the EU's turn to try to impose checks on search engines through its controversial "Written Declaration 29."
Written Declaration 29
Italy's European Member of Parliament, Tiziano Motti, is the author of the proposal, commonly known as Written Declaration 29, adopted last week. His aim was to protect children from abusers and paedophiles lurking on the web by requesting that user data from search engines be stored and used by governments to track sexual offenders.
This is the key part of the original text:
Written Declaration 29 also has a website for its campaign against sexual offense perpetrated on children.
Watchdog Privacy International immediately stepped up to the plate by issuing a joint statement with search engine Ixquick, entitled: Ixquick: Search Engines Should Become Government Spies, Says EU Parliament. Ixquick has built its reputation on not storing any user search data and therefore feels it has been singled out by the Declaration. For Robert Beens, CEO of Ixquick, Written Declaration 29 would jeopardize the privacy of over 500 million people across Europe when it should really uniquely concern known offenders. "Sex offenders exchange files through underground networks. They don't find this stuff through search engines," Alex Hanff of Privacy International said in the statement. "I spent eight years helping law enforcement track down online sex offenders and never once did we see a case where search engine data was useful."
A Swedish MEP, Christian Engström, went as far as urging his peers to withdraw their signatures supporting Written Declaration 29. He said in a blog post that "many Members of the European Parliament have been misled into signing the declaration." He himself further quotes a letter from fellow MEP Cecilia Wikström as saying that "... data retention is not relevant to an early-warning system and that none of the material made available to MEPs on the subject mentioned data retention." More letters are about to go out as Privacy International will be writing to over 200 European organizations this week on the issue, according to Mediapost. The advocacy group wasn't immediately available for comment.
Lost In Translation
In the face of such reactions, Mr Motti issued a clarification memo explaining that his intention was not to keep tabs on all activity on search engines but solely on "children related pornography and sexual harassment online. Again, not any research made through search engines."
Mediapost reckons that the Declaration calls for the retention of search data for up to two years. Google's policy is to anonymize IP addresses after nine months and cookies after 18 months, according to a spokesperson quoted by Mediapost. This compares to a period of only six months of storage for Bing IP addresses.
It is quite fascinating how those who got grief at first for violating privacy are ultimately those who are empowered to help fight the leaks. In the U.S., for example, as ClickZ's Kate Kane reported, Google (and also Facebook, who also endured worldwide scrutiny over its privacy stance) is contributing to the "cure" by submitting comments on a federal privacy legislation draft introduced in early May. And as Mediapost points out, "the EU plans to leave the technicalities of capturing, storing and sorting through the data to Google and Microsoft, among others." Would it be a case of "I've been there, I can do that?"