European bodies give Google mixed signals on data retention

Published 4 June 2010

The European Commission wants Google to erase personally identifiable information from its logs after six months — but members of the European Parliament are calling for laws to require Google to retain more data for longer; these MEPs argue the data will help catch pedophiles

The familiar Google search engine screen // Source:

Google is about to gain a surprising ally in its battle against the European Commission to retain its search logs — the European Parliament.

The dominant search firm has been under pressure from Brussels to erase personally identifiable information from its logs after six months. So far, Google has agreed to some anonymization after nine months. Last week the Commission’s article 29 working group, a body of privacy experts, said Google had not gone far enough. “I call on you to improve the protection of the online privacy of users of your search engine services,” the group’s chairman wrote in a letter to Google.

Chris Williams writes that meanwhile, however, more than 300 members of the European parliament (MEPs) are calling for laws to require Google to retain more data. They have signed a written declaration urging that the European Data Retention Directive — which mandates that ISPs should retain basic session data for up to two years — is extended to cover web search providers. Their aim is to set up an “early warning system for pedophiles and sex offenders.”

Written declarations are the European Parliament’s equivalent of the House of Commons’ Early Day Motion system or the U.S. House’s and Senate’s nonbinding resolutions, whereby MPs sign up to causes in the hope of drawing attention to or action on their cause.

Sponsored by Italian MEP Tiziano Motti and Slovak MEP Anna Záborská, written declaration 29 (pdf) is close to being adopted by the Parliament. It has 324 of the requisite 369 MEPs’ signatures.

It is unclear from the declaration itself how legally-mandated retention of web searches would help create an “early warning system” against pedophiles. Quite possibly though, Motti and Záborská envisage sifting through logs for questionable search terms, linking them to individuals via stored IP addresses, and catching nascent pedophiles before they become a threat to children.

If 369 MEPs do sign the declaration it will have no legal affect, but will be sent to the European Commission for consideration.

Williams notes that when it comes to EU policy-making, the European Parliament is “much more monkey than organ grinder.” Given the Commission’s ongoing battle with Google to cut search data retention, the MEPs’ “early warning system” plan seems speculative at best.