On Tuesday, Ask.com launched a new product designed to give consumers more control over the privacy of their online searches, but at least one privacy guru remains skeptical about its effectiveness in a Google-driven search world.
Users can enable the new technology, dubbed AskEraser, to completely delete search queries and associated information from Ask.com servers, including IP address, user ID, session ID, and the complete text of their queries.
"For people who worry about their online privacy, AskEraser now gives them control of their search information," Jim Lanzone, CEO of Ask.com, said in a statement. "AskEraser is simple, straightforward, and easy to use. It is an idea whose time has come."
Ask.com's Privacy Push
Ask.com users will find the AskEraser link featured in the upper right corner of the search engine's homepage and search results pages. Once enabled, AskEraser remains "on" for searches conducted across Ask.com's major search verticals: Web, images, AskCity, news, blogs, video, and maps. The feature can be turned on or off by the user at any time.
This is the next step in Ask.com's plans for privacy. Earlier this year, the company announced plans to implement a new data-retention policy to disassociate search history from IP address and user IDs after 18 months.
In addition, Ask.com has taken steps to further industry collaboration on privacy issues. In July, Ask.com and Microsoft joined together in urging the online industry to develop global privacy principles for data collection, use, and protection related to searching and online advertising.
Since then, Ask.com has worked with other technology leaders, consumer advocacy organizations, and academics to make progress toward the development of these principles.
"Anonymized search data provides online companies with important information to optimize the overall search experience," Doug Leeds, senior vice president at Ask.com, said in a statement. "At Ask.com, that aggregate information is already guided by strong privacy standards and policies. But for those who place greater importance on protecting their search data and their online privacy, AskEraser takes care of their concerns by putting consumers in charge."
Still Not Enough?
Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) in Washington, D.C., said it's important to take steps to address privacy concerns in search. However, he added, despite the industry hoopla over Ask.com's new tool, the much bigger question is what Google is doing.
"The focus has to remain on Google," Rotenberg said. "The fact that Google is partnering with Ask and effectively collects data on behalf of Ask users for search queries raises some questions about how effective this approach will be for protecting privacy."
EPIC is focused on the Google-Doubleclick merger, which it opposes for privacy reasons. The center is putting pressure on the industry to discontinue the practice of retaining search histories.
Rotenberg said Ask.com's move is one step in the right direction, but noted that it's not enough. "When Google announces that it is not retaining search histories, I think we can celebrate," he said. "Up until that point, there's still a lot more work that needs to be done on the privacy front."
AskEraser is available now in the U.S. and in the UK -- and will be deployed globally in 2008.