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Google leads crusade for global privacy rules

Google, the world's largest Internet company, will propose at a meeting of European policymakers that national regulators agree on a basic set of global privacy protections.
/ Source: Reuters

Google Inc, the world's largest Internet company, will propose at a meeting of European policymakers in France on Friday that national regulators agree on a basic set of global privacy protections.

Peter Fleischer, Google's global privacy counsel, will use a regional UNESCO conference in Strasbourg as a forum to call on countries to adopt as a global standard a set of privacy principles agreed to by a variety of Asia-Pacific countries.

Speaking to reporters by phone on Thursday from France, Fleischer said the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Privacy Framework principles governing the use of personal data in commercial contexts represented the baseline privacy rules.

The APEC guidelines have been accepted by countries ranging from Australia, with its stringent European-influenced privacy polices, all the way to the Communist government of Vietnam, where privacy demands have grown as free markets take root.

"If privacy principles can be agreed in such divergent countries, then we think that is a model for the rest of the world," Fleischer told reporters. Generally, he added, "what we see is a lack of privacy standards" around the globe.

Fleischer said it was vital for the health of the Internet, the global economy and Google's own business agenda to move beyond the current patchwork of conflicting privacy rules.

He described a typical online shopping scenario involving a French consumer using a U.S. company's online service. The U.S. firm might have data centers in multiple countries, perhaps Belgium and Ireland in the case of a French consumer. Customer service for the transaction might be handled out of India.

"Every time a person uses a credit card their information may cross six or seven national boundaries," Fleischer said.

Conflicting regimes
Europe operates under a harmonized set of strict privacy regulations, but these rules were set forth in 1995, largely before the rise of the commercial Internet, he said.

By contrast, the United States has no all-encompassing federal privacy law but rather a scattershot approach to privacy, state by state and industry by industry. Meanwhile, Canada offers a hybrid approach between the two camps.

Google has recently stepped up a push for policy changes and industry self-regulation to fend off criticism over the unprecedented access to personal information the Web provides.

Because its stated mission is to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible, Google has come under fire for the threat its services pose to privacy.

A recent move to acquire online advertising tools supplier DoubleClick Inc has put Google under increased scrutiny by U.S. regulators concerned by its growing power in online advertising and the mounds of data on surfing habits that Google stores.

APEC's framework aims to harmonize the privacy perspectives of economic powers like the United States and China with Asian and European traditions reflected in the policies of Hong Kong, Korea, Japan, Australia and New Zealand, Fleischer will argue.

The framework's nine principles focus on preventing harm to the privacy of individuals, safeguards on data collection, notification of users, access and correction of inaccurate data and the commercial uses of private information.

Google will present its ideas to national privacy commissioners meeting in Montreal later in September.

Also at that meeting, Google plans to sit down with rivals Microsoft Corp and Yahoo Inc to discuss further self-regulation steps the Internet industry can take such as curtailing how long it stores user data, he said.

Asked why the Silicon Valley company is pressing a privacy policy agenda abroad rather than in Washington, Fleischer professed resignation about simplifying U.S. privacy policies.

"I just don't believe it will happen in this Congress," he said. "World debate will help foster U.S. debate."