Web-search privacy efforts move to forefront

The title of this post is the headline from a story in today’s Wall Street Journal (non-firewall version here), detailing how the largest web search engines are starting to make changes to how they handle the data collected from their users — and how some are approaching it as a competitive advantage to try to take some air out of Google’s balloon:

Microsoft and Ask are also trying to step out in front of the issue. The companies today will announce their plans to try to bring together a broad swath of companies and advocacy groups to establish common practices about how and for how long search engines store personal data they glean from their users.

Executives at the companies said they expect to announce a more formal plan in September. Peter Cullen, chief privacy strategist for Microsoft, said the company hoped other search concerns, including Google, would participate in the discussions.

That Microsoft and Ask are trying to spearhead industrywide privacy standards could be in part a reflection of their place in the industry. Both lag far behind Google and Yahoo in Internet-search market share and thus have far less data about search behaviors than their rivals. By calling for more defined standards on privacy, Microsoft could indirectly limit Google’s ability to use its vast stores of information to improve its services. Google had 49.5% of the U.S. search market in June, according to comScore Inc.

Microsoft, whose sites were used for 13.2% of all U.S. Internet searches, will also today announce a variety of new policies, including making Live Search query data anonymous after 18 months by removing the entire IP address and other identifiers from the search terms. The company said it will continue to develop new controls that allow users to surf its sites without being tracked for behavioral advertising.

Recall that Ask.com recently announced new privacy procedures, while Google has been struggling to convince the public that data retention is essential. More news about this latest announcement here and here.

These latest efforts are a welcome shift of focus for the web search industry, and I hope we can ride this momentum and continue to work towards solutions that help give users more control over the collection of their personal data while using these vital tools. This is the task before me in the coming months…

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