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EU Probes Google Over Privacy Concerns

An independent European Union panel has launched an investigation into whether Google Inc.'s Internet search engine abides by European privacy rules.

EU spokesman Pietro Petrucci said Friday that the 28-member panel, which advises the European Commission and EU governments on data protection issues, wants Google to address concerns about the company's practice of storing and retaining user information for up to two years.

"This group has addressed a letter to Google raising a number of questions," Petrucci said, adding that EU Justice Commissioner Franco Frattini was backing the investigation.

"He considers those questions raised by the letter to be appropriate and legitimate," Petrucci said.

Peter Fleischer, Google's global privacy counsel, said the company was doing a lot to protect personal data gathered from users on its search engine.

"We believe it's an important part of our commitment to respect user privacy while balancing a number of important factors, such as maintaining security and preventing fraud and abuse," Fleischer said. He added that Google was "committed to engaging in a constructive dialogue."

Google said it would answer the EU's privacy concerns before the panel's next meeting at the end of June.

The EU move follows recent action in the United States, where a consumer group asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate Google's privacy protections after the company proposed to buy online advertising company DoubleClick Inc.

EU officials said they had sent a letter last week to Google asking whether the California-based company had "fulfilled all the necessary requirements" to abide by European data protection rules, which generally are stricter than those in the United States. Officials said the EU panel also asked for information on how Google retains users' data.

Fleischer said Google needs to log details of user searches for security purposes -- to protect its search engine from hackers. But he said the company has taken recent measures to improve user privacy. Server logs, for example, are "anonymized" after 18 to 24 months.

"We're the only leading search company to have taken this step publicly," he said.

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