Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Ask.com and Microsoft call for privacy standards

According to PC World, Ask.com will be the first major search engine to offer an anonymous searching option to users. Their new AskEraser feature will give users the option to request that their search data not be stored.

This is in stark contrast to Google’s recent announcement that they will reduce the time they save search data from over 30 years to “only” two years. In spite of Google’s voluntary reduction in cookie life, European privacy experts, among others, have soundly criticized the lifespan of Google’s cookies:

"Compared to the previous lifetime of 30 years, the period of two years seems to be short," Schaar wrote in an email. "But from a data-protection perspective, and considering the fact that the user's search behaviour is recorded and can be analysed for any purposes, this period is still too long."
Meanwhile, Microsoft has joined Ask.com in calling on technology leaders to find a way to meet their need for advertising data without compromising user privacy:

"The first step is, we'll be in contact with all the other players in this space and talk about what a summit might look like," said Cullen. "We're very happy to host it, if that's the answer ... both Microsoft and Ask.com think that this is the time to make this happen."

Microsoft is planning to allow users to opt out of having their search data used to generate targeted advertising on Microsoft's Web sites, and under a new privacy policy, plans to scrub all search query data of any user-identifiable information after 18 months. While this is in part a shot at Google, it is encouraging to see some leadership within the industry to safeguard the privacy of their users’ search data.

The ability to search anonymously is essential in allowing individuals to explore any area of inquiry without fear of discovery or retribution. When companies track user data, their primary motivation is to inform their decisions about advertising. The abuse of search data has additional implications if the data is merged with that of advertisers, as I wrote in an earlier post about the proposed Google and DoubleClick merger.

When search data is breached, the consequences could be far more serious than mere embarassment. About a year ago, AOL inadvertently released the search data for about 650,000 searches on their site and New York Times reporters were actually able to identify one of the searchers. Breaches of this magnitude and specificity could ruin careers and reputations, while creating a chilling effect on the exploration and sharing of ideas over the Internet.

Google needs to stop hedging on privacy and get on board with this initiative.

5 comments:

One Eyed View said...

It surprises me that Google is not leading this initiative. Kudos to Microsoft for stepping forward.

Sharon E. Herbert said...

Yes, Microsoft has certainly thrown down the gauntlet on this issue; we'll see if Google picks it up. Surely if they all put their heads together they can come up with a way to preserve the kind of data they require to generate advertising revenue without having to collect and save user-specific data.

Mike Scott said...

I had read a number of items about Google and Privacy, and one thing that I was thinking about was how much more user data they acquired when they purchased DoubleClick.

Double click was famous for using third party cookies on the web sites they advertise with, so that they could gather even more information about users.

It is bad enough that Google has all of the information already, but add the DoubleClick data, and it gets even more scary.

Sharon E. Herbert said...

You are right to be concerned about this, Mike. I wrote an earlier post on the topic http://gitm2.blogspot.com/2007/04/google-doubleclick-merger-privacy.html
and will keep following any developments.

Mike Scott said...

Thanks Sharon! I hadn't heard of all the groups that you mentioned in that post, I'll have to check them out.