Google on Tuesday made fresh concessions to European Union data protection officials, agreeing to limit the amount of time it keeps users’ personal search data to 18 months.

The US internet group also said it would “radically redesign” its policy on keeping information from “cookies” or identifier programmes on individual computers.

Google cookies are set to expire after 30 years but this could be cut down to just two in the face of European Union criticism.

This is the second time in the past four months that Google has announced changes to its privacy policy in response to pressure from the Article 29 working party, a group of national officials that advises the European Union on privacy policy.

Officials are worried that data from Google searches and cookies can be used to identify individuals and create profiles of their political opinions, religious beliefs and sexual preferences.

Last March, Google promised to limit storage time to between 18 months and two years but this was not enough to satisfy officials. They told Google last month that the new storage period “does not seem to meet the requirements” of European law. They also raised new issues about the long life of cookies.

The privacy issue is in danger of becoming an embarrassment to Google, industry analysts said.

“The really big danger for Google is not so much that relations with the EU blow up but that it will come to be seen as not very caring of privacy by the user community,” said David Bradshaw, analyst at Ovum, the research group.

Mr Bradshaw pointed out that Google rose to prominence in the early part of the millennium, after rival Alta Vista was discredited in the eyes of users for not telling them it was putting paid-for advertising in with search results.

This week, Google’s data policy was also criticised by Privacy International, a UK-based human rights group. The group said Google had an “entrenched hostility to privacy’’ and ranked it the worst of the 23 sites it studied over six months. Companies such as Microsoft, Ebay and the BBC were ranked much more favourably.

Peter Fleischer, Google’s global privacy counsel, on Tuesday dismissed the Privacy International claims and said the group had rejected his offers to discuss the study.

He also appeared to draw a line under any further concessions to the Article 29 working group, saying that anything shorter than a 18-month storage period would “undermine legitimate obligations Google has”.

Mr Fleischer said the company retained the right to raise the storage period back to two years if US laws required it to.
Additional reporting by Chris Nuttall in San Francisco

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