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Privacy is the new battleground for search providers

Microsoft is trying to upgrade its image in the privacy community a bit and on Monday the company, along with, called on other search providers to come to the table for a discussion on how best to handle user search data for advertising purposes while still protecting users’ privacy. The announcement is pretty vague, simply asking “other technology leaders, consumer advocacy organizations and academics to come together and join them in working on the development of these principles, which could include developing and sharing best practices to provide more control for consumers.” But it seems like a not-so-subtle attempt by Redmond to pressure Google to step up its game. Google has been a frequent target of privacy advocates who complain that search giant retains too much user data and stores it for too long. And the company also is in the midst of a proposed acquisition of online ad firm DoubleClick, a transaction that is under investigation by a number of regulatory bodies.

In the announcement, Peter Cullen, Microsoft’s chief privacy strategist, had this to say: ““As search and other online services progress, it’s important for our customers to be able to trust that their information is being used appropriately and in a way that provides value to them. We hope others in the industry will join us in developing and supporting principles that address these important issues. People should be able to search and surf online without having to navigate a complicated patchwork of privacy policies.”

Microsoft also said it is changing the way it handles some user data in its Windows Live application. The enhancements include anonymizing user search data after 18 months by deleting cookie IDs, IP addresses and other identifiers. It’s quite interesting to see Microsoft taking the lead on this. It was not that long ago that federal regulators and consumers were ripping Microsoft for its privacy policies, especially the way it handled data collected from users of its Passport online ID system. Now, with Google under the gun, Microsoft is raising its hand and saying, Look how we’ve changed. But, as the New York Times points out, Yahoo does them both one better by retaining search data for just 13 months, and is even working on a way for users to do completely anonymous searches.

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