Once greeted warmly, Google wears out welcome

17 Nov Once greeted warmly, Google wears out welcome

International Herald Tribune, By Kevin J. O’Brien, November 16, 2008
When Google began hiring in Zurich for its new engineering center in 2004, local officials welcomed the U.S. company with open arms. Google’s arrival is still bearing fruit for Zurich: 450 employees, about 300 of them engineers, work in Google’s seven-story complex in a converted brewery on the outskirts of the placid mountain metropolis. But almost five years into its expansion into Europe – where it has a headquarters in Dublin, large facilities in Zurich and London and smaller centers in Denmark, Russia and Poland, among other countries – Google is beginning to bump up against a web of privacy laws that threaten its growth and the positive image it has cultivated as a company dedicated to doing good – its unofficial motto. In Switzerland, data protection officials are quietly pressing Google to scrap plans to introduce Street View, a mapping service that provides a vivid, 360-degree, ground-level photographic panorama from any address. Swiss privacy law prohibits the unauthorized use of personal images or property. In Germany, where Street View is also not available, the simple process of taking photographs for the service violates privacy laws. “The privacy issue will likely become increasingly important for Google as it continues to offer new services in Europe,” said Dirk Lewandowski, a professor of information sciences at the University of Applied Sciences in Hamburg and an expert on search engine technology. “For the moment, most consumers are not aware their data is being used by Google in some fashion. But I think as people become aware of this, there could be protests that Google will have to address.” The conflict does not end with Street View, which so far in Europe depicts only major cities in France, Spain and Italy. Data protection advisers to the European Commission inBrussels are questioning Google about how long the company retains user logs – the files the company compiles of queries typed by individuals into Google search fields. A panel of EU national regulators called the Article 29 Working Party wants Google – as well as Yahoo and Microsoft’s MSN Search – to purge the records after six months. Google says it needs the data for nine months to adjust its search engine to reflect the constant changes in contextual meaning generated by news and events. Before October, Google retained the records for 18 months in the EU. Yahoo is retaining its records for 13 months and MSN, for 18 months. EU officials are trying to persuade Google and the others to comply but have not ruled out asking the commission to intervene.