May 18, 2011 6:14 pm

Google warns against ‘foolish’ legislation

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Eric Schmidt, Google’s executive chairman, has warned lawmakers in Europe not to pass “foolish” laws that would make the search engine’s services illegal, as many policymakers look to increase regulation of online personal data.

He said that well-intended regulation could have “unintended consequences” that make it impossible for internet companies to do business legally.

Asked by an attendee at Google’s “Big Tent” event in Hertfordshire about a new French law, published in March, that requires internet companies to store for a year e-mail addresses, unencrypted passwords and other data about their users, Mr Schmidt said: “Hopefully the French or any other country won’t pass laws that are so foolish they force Google to not be able to operate in those countries.”

Google’s terms currently state that it will hold on to users’ search query data for nine months.

Google has threatened to shut down its Street View mapping service in Switzerland after the country’s supreme court required 100 per cent accuracy in blurring faces and number plates on its images.

Mr Schmidt also indicated in a meeting with reporters that he would continue to resist persistent pressure from the content industry to remove websites that facilitate file sharing from Google’s search results, saying it could set a “disastrous precedent” for free speech.

“We have been in discussion with media companies for a long time, it is not obvious how to solve it,” he said, adding that Google would fight any laws that forced it to block certain domains.

In response to another question about the European Union’s e-privacy directive, which requires websites to gain consent for use of tracking cookies, he said: “Part of it is that well-meaning people in government write something which is pretty broad and you have to be careful when you do this kind of regulation, you might affect something and have an unintended consequence. So that is what we are always concerned about.”

But Mr Schmidt said that Google would respect regulations that tallied with its belief that users should be able to control the data the company collects on them.

“You should be able to delete the information that we know about you, at least that we control,” he said, in a nod to the European Commission’s proposals for a “right to forget” online.

Google’s dashboard service for managing privacy settings and what kinds of targeted advertising a user sees will be expanded, with better visualisation of the controls.

Privacy has become a battleground between Google and Facebook, as illustrated by the exposure last week of a secret public-relations campaign orchestrated by the social networking company against the search engine designed to generate critical press coverage about Google’s handling of personal information.

Facebook accused Google of infringing its terms of service and users’ privacy by incorporating Facebook data into “Social Circle”, which personalises search results based on friends’ recommendations about websites.

“A lot of people have looked at these claims. The claims have generally been found to be false,” Mr Schmidt said. Asked about Facebook’s attempt to generate negative coverage about a rival, he said: “To my knowledge Google has never done this and to my knowledge I can’t imagine that we would ever do it... As to why Facebook would do this and so forth, you would have to ask them.”

Mr Schmidt also raised concerns about facial recognition technology, saying that a centralised system that could recognise the people depicted in a service such as Google Images would probably be illegal in Europe.

“My guess is people will be so unhappy if that stuff becomes generally available that it will be generally not legal around the world,” he said.

Facial recognition technology has developed “surprising accuracy that he said was “very concerning”. Privacy concerns meant that Google is “unlikely” to create such a service, although Mr Schmidt warned that “some company by the way is going to cross that line”.

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