Privacy Spat Could Shut German Gmail

Google threatens to pull the plug on Gmail if Germany passes a proposed law requiring stringent data retention

In a showdown with the German government, Google, Inc. has threatened to shut down its popular e-mail service in Germany if a planned telecommunications law goes into effect unchanged -- a law Google's chief data-protection advisor has called a "heavy blow against the private sphere."

The law is Germany's interpretation of EU data-retention rules. If passed later this year by German parliament -- by no means a sure bet -- it would require all telecommunications companies to collect and keep private information on their German customers starting in 2008. To help with criminal surveillance the government wants the connection data of any German citizen -- including Internet details, phone call information, and text messages -- saved for 6 months. Anonymous data would be unacceptable. The vote in the Bundestag, Germany's parliament, has not yet been scheduled.

Google, though, offers anonymous e-mail accounts. It takes first and last names for its Gmail service, but those can be faked; and it doesn't require a valid snail-mail address. "Many users around the globe make use of this anonymity to defend themselves from spam, or government repression of free speech," said Peter Fleischer, Google's Global Privacy Counsel, to the German business magazine Wirtschaftswoche. "If the Web community won't trust us with handling their data with great care, we'll go down in no time." As an emergency measure, he said -- rather than change the product -- "we would shut off Google Mail in Germany."

Google itself has not been a consistent champion of private data, however. In mid-June a British human-rights group called Privacy International published security rankings of major Internet companies including Amazon, Apple, BBC, Ebay, Microsoft, Myspace, Skype, Wikipedia, and Yahoo. Google turned up at the bottom. Privacy International praised Google for not handing over "piles of data to the US government," but had filed a complaint with privacy regulators in 2004 over Google's policy of scanning customers' E-mail to sell semi-personalized advertising.

In May, Google offered to comply with European Union privacy rules by cutting the length of time it keeps personal data on its users' searches by 25 percent. Google said it would anonymize that information after 18 months, instead of 24.