Competing on Privacy
Over the past few days the major online search engines have made a series of announcements regarding their privacy practices:
- Ask.com has announced a new tool that allows users to request that Ask not retain any of their search queries -- the only tool of its kind among the major search engines. Search query logs that Ask does retain will be disassociated from specific user data (IP addresses and cookie identifiers) after they have been stored for 18 months.
- Google has decided to limit the lifetime of its cookies to two years, causing them to expire on the computers of users who do not visit the search engine for two years. Google will also partially obscure IP addresses and cookie identifiers in its search logs after they have been stored for 18 months.
- Microsoft has announced that it will remove all IP addresses and cookie identifiers from its search logs after 18 months, and will store search logs separately from account information (name, email address, or phone number).
- Yahoo will soon announce a new policy to delete portions of IP addresses and cookie identifiers in its search logs after 13 months. After 13 months Yahoo will also apply a personal information filter to remove names, social security numbers, addresses, telephone numbers, and other personal information from its search logs. Yahoo plans to limit the lifetime of its cookies to two years.
These developments indicate that search engines are beginning to compete on privacy. The major search engines have long been competing on the quality of their search results, the clarity of their site design, and their ability to personalize their services. It is high time for privacy to be added to this list. Search is becoming an increasingly integral part of Internet users' daily lives - for many, it is difficult to go for an entire day without conducting a search. This means that search engines are not only holding more user data than ever, but that the privacy and security of that data impacts more people than ever before. We hope these recent announcements are only the beginning of a process that ultimately gives users increased control over their online information. Microsoft and Ask.com have proposed that search engines and public interest groups join together to discuss the privacy issues in this area, and we are fully supportive of such a dialogue.