As the information age becomes a reality for increasing numbers of people globally, the technologies that underpin it are getting more sophisticated and useful. The opportunities are immense. For individuals, a quantum leap forward in their ability to communicate and create, speak and be heard; for national economies, accelerated growth and innovation.
However, these technological advances do sometimes make it feel as if our lives are now an open book. Credit cards record where we shop and what we buy. Mobile phones track our every movement. Emails leave a trail of who we talk to, and what we say. And the latest internet trends -- blogs, video sharing sites and social networks -- make it possible to share almost anything -- photos, home movies, one's innermost thoughts -- with almost anyone.
That's why Google believes it's important to develop new privacy rules to govern the increasingly transparent world that is emerging today -- and by new rules I don't automatically mean new laws. In my experience self regulation often works better than legislation -- especially in highly competitive markets where people can easily switch providers.
Search is a good example. Search engines like Google have traditionally stored their users' queries indefinitely -- the data helps us to improve services and prevent fraud. These logs record the search query, when it was entered, and the computer's Internet Protocol (IP) address and cookie. An IP address is the number -- sometimes permanent, sometimes temporary -- that is assigned to a computer -- it enables us to get the right results to the right screen. And a cookie is a small file which, amongst other things, records people's preferences -- the fact that they like their search results in English.
While none of this information actually identifies individuals, it doesn't tell us who someone is or where they live, it is to some extent personal because it records people's search queries. That's why Google has decided to cut off parts of the IP address and cookie after 18 months . breaking the link between queries and the computers they originated from. It's not unlike credit card companies replacing digits with stars on receipts to improve their customers' security. Other search engines have now followed suit demonstrating that in an industry where trust matters companies are now competing on the best privacy practices as well as services. It's a great example of self-regulation at work.
Of course, that's not to say privacy legislation doesn't have its place in setting minimum standards. It does. At the moment, the majority of countries have no data protection rules at all. And where legislation does exist, it's typically a mix of different regimes. In America, for example, privacy is largely the responsibility of the different states -- so there are effectively 50 different approaches to the problem. The European Union by contrast has developed common standards, but as some privacy regulators in Europe have acknowledged these are often complex and inflexible.
In any event, privacy rules in one country, no matter how well designed, are of limited use now that personal data can zip several times around the world in a matter of seconds. Think about a routine credit card transaction -- this can involve six or more separate countries once the location of customer service and data centres are taken into account.
That's why Google is calling for a new, more co-ordinated approach to data protection by the international community. Consistent global privacy standards, based on transparency and user choice so that people can make informed decisions about the services they use, would have significant benefits. First, they would give consumers more confidence that their data is safe, wherever it's stored. Second, they would create greater certainty for business, helping to stimulate economic activity and innovation.
Of course, developing any kind of global standard won't be easy -- but it's not entirely new ground. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development produced its own guidelines as far back as 1980. More recently the United Nations, the Asian-Pacific Economic Co-operation Forum and the International Privacy Commissioners' Conference have all focussed on the need for a more unified approach.
The speed and scale of the digital revolution has been so great that few of us can remember how life was before we could communicate and trade 24-hours a day, seven days a week. And the benefits . in terms of improved access to information, increased freedom and higher economic growth - have been so great that most people who do remember the past would never want to go back. The task we now face is twofold: to build consumer trust by preventing abuse, and to create consistent, predictable rules that encourage future innovation.
If we are serious about achieving these goals, it's time for us to get serious about agreeing on a global approach to privacy.