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EU: Privacy International Files Complaints vs. Google

April 20th, 2004

Google Inc.'s Gmail came under fresh fire Monday when an international privacy rights group said the soon-to-be-launched free e-mail service violated privacy laws in Europe and elsewhere.

Privacy International, which has offices in the U.S. and Europe, said it had filed complaints with privacy and data-protection regulators in 17 countries in Europe, as well as in Canada and Australia. It had already filed an initial complaint in Britain.

Simon Davies, director of Privacy International, said the complaint identified "a wide range of possible breaches of European Union law."

The world's most popular Internet search engine said this month that it would soon start offering Gmail with 1 gigabyte of free storage capacity more than 100 times that offered by established rivals Yahoo Mail and Microsoft Corp.'s MSN Hotmail.

Google said Gmail, which is still in its test phase, complied with data-protection laws worldwide.

The user terms, however, sparked controversy among consumer advocacy groups and some Internet users because Google said its computers would scan e-mails for keywords to use in sending Gmail users targeted advertisements. It would also keep copies of e-mails even after consumers had deleted them.

Privacy International said these and other terms breached European privacy laws, which are stricter than U.S. laws.

European law says that data should not be stored longer than necessary, and scanning e-mails is allowed only under certain limited conditions.

"Google actively solicits user feedback on our privacy policies if they can be made clearer or otherwise improved, we want to hear about it," the Mountain View, Calif.-based company said in a statement. "We look forward to a detailed dialogue with data protection authorities across Europe to ensure their concerns are heard and resolved."

An initial British complaint from Privacy International about Gmail was struck down this month by Britain's Information Commissioner's Office, partly because the service has not yet been launched commercially. An ICO spokeswoman said that under EU law, an Internet service was considered lawful as long as it explicitly spelled out how the user's information would be handled in the terms of service.

"As long as Google is clear and transparent, there is no data protection issue," she said.

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