Taking Ask to Task: Privacy Groups vs. AskEraser

Written By Sepideh Saremi | January 24, 2008 | No Comments

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Last month, we reported that Ask.com’s AskEraser expanded privacy options, allowing users to opt out of having their search data tracked. Now privacy groups, including the Electronic Privacy Information Center, are taking issue with AskEraser, calling it “unfair and deceptive” and lodging a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission.

The groups allege that AskEraser isn’t as pro-privacy as it claims, for three reasons (paraphrased): it requires cookie-blockers turned off in a browser for the installation of the AskEraser cookie, which then remember not to track that user; said cookie is a way to identify a user because of time stamps; and Ask can disable AskEraser without notice. Ask.com says they unsuccessfully tried to speak to EPIC before the group filed with the FTC, and that EPIC’s document is inaccurate and outdated. From Wired, which quotes Ask.com spokesman Nicholas Graham:

EPIC’s filing is flawed in the sense that the document they filed is factually inaccurate, and simply shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the functionality of our product. In addition, many of the issues they raise are outdated, while others are completely misguided from the outset, and others deal with changes that Ask.com already made to AskEraser weeks ago, and were subsequently posted publicly on our website.

Changes “made to AskEraser weeks ago” were editing the cookie settings so there’s no longer a time stamp, so at least part of EPIC’s claim is based on an outdated claim.

But what’s more interesting with this issue is Search Engine Land’s point wondering why these groups didn’t lead with the fact that that Ask.com actually does collect some data for its partners, most famous of whom is probably Google. From Search Engine Land:

That’s a far bigger issue, and I’m surprised EPIC didn’t lead with that, rather than the three other points that are easy to take apart. Someone engaging AskEraser probably does not understand or expect that their query and IP address, along with perhaps a unique cookie ID, is flowing over to Google so that Ask can retrieve ads. And they are not reasonably expecting they have to go to Google or another partner to try and delete information there (if they can — they probably can’t).

That’s the big flaw with AskEraser. The complain also notes that those using the Ask toolbar won’t get AskEraser protection, even if enabled. On that point, I think the FAQ is clear enough.

Ask.com is fairly thorough and forthcoming in its AskEraser FAQ, and AskEraser is definitely way ahead of the privacy policies of other engines. What do you think: Are the privacy groups’ claims that AskEraser is “unfair and deceptive” justified?

Further reading: See The Iconoclast for an in-depth explanation of the time-stamp issue, and Techdirt for an interesting take on the privacy groups.

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