Remember Cuil, the search engine launched in 2008 that was supposed to be a Google-killer? Didn’t think so.

Anyway, one of Cuil’s touted competitive advantages was that it didn’t track user search queries. Its original privacy policy (dated July 27, 2008) went to great lengths to make users feel comfortable about the privacy of their search activities, opening with this impressive declaration:

Privacy is a hot topic these days, and we want you to feel totally comfortable using our service, so our privacy policy is very simple: when you search with Cuil, we do not collect any personally identifiable information, period. We have no idea who sends queries: not by name, not by IP address, and not by cookies (more on this later). Your search history is your business, not ours.

The policy included a section on “Logs”, noting simply that “We do not keep logs of our users’ search activity.” In the policy’s “Cookies” section, Cuil confirmed that “We do not record the information in your cookies on our servers” and that “we do not store any personal information about you on our servers.”

Upon their launch, Cuil declared that its “methods guarantee online privacy for searchers”.

Cool.

Except, that’s no longer the case.

After about a year of futility, Cuil updated their privacy policy on June 1, 2009, noting that “We may soon be adding advertisements to Cuil. As a result, our privacy policy will change.” Hmmmm….

About a month later, on July 13, 2009, Cuil completely gutted their privacy policy, and the privacy-protecting measures that were once located therein. Gone is the statement that “when you search with Cuil, we do not collect any personally identifiable information, period. We have no idea who sends queries: not by name, not by IP address, and not by cookies”. Gone is the section on “Logs” stating that they don’t keep any. Gone is the confirmation in the “Cookies” section that Cuil does “not store any personal information about you on our servers”.

Each of these privacy-preserving sentiments have been stripped from Cuil’s privacy policy. Instead, there now is a section on “Advertisements”, stating:

Advertisements are from a third-party and when you click on ads, we direct you to another website. To place ads in the first place, we transmit the IP address, browser type, and the query to the third party. If you want to opt out, please visit the preferences panel.

Whoa! Cuil transmits my search query and my IP address to the third party advertiser in order to place the ad? That’s a radical departure from its original “Your search history is your business” mantra.

Cuil also goes out of its way to make it difficult for users to opt out of this wholesale sharing of a users search activity. The preferences panel does have a handful of settings on it. But you have to look closely to see the link to “Advertising preferences” in a font much smaller than the rest of the page (screenshot). Only when you click that does Cuil decide to offer you the option to turn this off (screenshot).

On a related note, I can’t even find the ads within Cuil’s search results. There are no obvious “sponsored links” or separate advertising section within their interface. And searches for “Las Vegas” and “New York Hotel”, keywords that should certainly spark some advertising activity, are the same whether I have the advertising preferences turned on or off. I’ve emailed Cuil asking for clarification for how advertising is integrated into their results.

UPDATE (11/6): Overnight, Cuil sent me a tweet indicating that “we still don’t keep logs or store personal info”, and promising an email. I look forward to receiving any kind of clarification as to why their privacy policy has been stripped of its teeth.

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