Search Engines Beefing Up Privacy Policies

With Google having announced new privacy measures regarding search retention policies, it was only a matter of time before the other big names in search jumped on board as well. Now both Microsoft and Yahoo are overhauling their data retention policies, reports the Wall Street Journal.

From Microsoft’s press release:

The principles outline new, enhanced steps to help protect the privacy of Microsoft Windows Live users, including making search query data anonymous after 18 months by permanently removing cookie IDs, the entire IP address and other identifiers from search terms. Microsoft will also work to give customers more control over what information it uses to personalize their online search experience. In connection with its efforts to support a common industry approach to privacy issues, Microsoft also announced that it will join the Network Advertising Initiative (NAI) later this year when it begins to offer third-party ad serving broadly.

In addition, Microsoft will also be teaming up with in a call for an industry-wide effort to establish standards in protecting consumer privacy in search and online advertising and data retention. An update will follow in September.

Meanwhile, Yahoo promised to make search data anonymous after 13 months unless users request longer retention, or if the company is required to retain it for law enforcement or legal processes, according to Yahoo spokesman Jim Cullinan.

Everyone seems to be re-examining their privacy policies nowadays. It started with Google, who announced recently that they would expire cookies on their servers after 18 months. Last week, unveiled AskEraser, which will give users control of how their search data is managed, and gives them the option of nuking their search histories completely.

Why all these measures now? TechCrunch offers its take:

The Wall Street Journal correctly notes that in part, growing concerns among consumers and privacy groups is driving the move towards improved user policy. It then goes on to cynically suggest that with Microsoft and Ask it may be a case of the search minnows trying to find a marketing edge over the much larger Google and Yahoo.

A stronger reason lies with government pressure. In Europe, Google is currently being probed by an Independent EU panel that is investigating possible breaches of EU Privacy Laws. Although the probe is currently focusing on Google, it’s not an unreasonable assumption to make that it could easily be extended to other search companies. The FTC probe into Google’s acquisition of DoubleClick may also consider privacy issues relating to the acquisition along with anti-trust considerations.

At any rate, it’s good to hear that privacy concerns are at least being addressed, even if these new policies don’t end up making a significant impact. User data does have its usefulness to marketers and advertisers, but the amount and length of information being stored has been making people uneasy about just exactly how much privacy there is to their online habits.

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