Google has bowed to long-standing concerns from privacy activists in the US and Europe, agreeing for the first time to limit the amount of time it will keep information about the internet searches made by its users.

The popular search engine has come in for persistent criticism over its practice of keeping information on its servers indefinitely.

That practice could leave internet users exposed to future requests for information from government agencies, or to potential misuse, critics say.

In future, the company will only keep search data for up to two years, said Peter Fleischer, the Paris-based European privacy counsel for Google.

Google depicted the change in policy as one designed to match new European data retention laws. However, while these require companies to keep the data for two years, they do not place any limits on how long they can be stored.

The data kept by Google includes the search term typed in, the address of the internet server and occasionally more personal information contained on “cookies” or identifier programs on an individual’s computer.

Data protection and privacy groups are concerned about the retention of this data, which they believe can be used to identify individuals and create profiles of their political opinions, religious beliefs and sexual preferences.

Law enforcement agencies routinely request details from internet and telecoms companies to track suspected criminals and terrorists.

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