Ask.com puts a bet on privacy

The fourth-largest search engine company will begin a service called AskEraser, which allows users to make their searches more private.

OAKLAND, Calif.--Will privacy sell?

Ask.com is betting it will. The fourth-largest search engine company will begin a service Tuesday called AskEraser, which allows users to make their searches more private.

Ask.com and other major search engines like Google, Yahoo and Microsoft typically keep track of search terms typed by users and link them to a computer's Internet address, and sometimes to the user. However, when AskEraser is turned on, Ask.com discards all that information, the company said.

Ask, a unit of IAC/InterActive based in Oakland, hopes that the privacy protection will differentiate it from much more successful search engines like Google. The service will be conspicuously displayed atop Ask.com's main search page, as well as on the pages of the company's specialized services for finding videos, images, news and blogs. Unlike typical online privacy controls that often can be difficult for average users to find or modify, people will be able to turn AskEraser on or off with a single click.

"It works like a light switch," said Doug Leeds, senior vice president for product management at Ask.com. Leeds said the service would be a selling point with consumers who were particularly alert about protecting their privacy.

"I think that it is a step forward," said Ari Schwartz, deputy director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, about AskEraser. "It is the first time that a large company is giving individuals choices that are so transparent."

But underscoring how difficult it is to completely erase one's digital footprints, the information typed by users of AskEraser into Ask.com will not disappear completely. Ask.com relies on Google to deliver many of the ads that appear next to its search results. Under an agreement between the two companies, Ask.com will continue to pass query information on to Google. Leeds acknowledged that AskEraser cannot promise complete anonymity, but said it would greatly increase privacy protections for users who want them, as Google is contractually constrained in what it can do with that information. A Google spokesman said the company uses the information to place relevant ads and to fight certain online scams.

Some privacy experts doubt that concerns about privacy are significant enough to turn a feature like AskEraser into a major selling point for Ask.com. The search engine accounted for 4.7 percent of all searches conducted in the United States in October, according to comScore, which ranks Internet traffic. By comparison, Google accounted for 58.5 percent, Yahoo for 22.9 percent and Microsoft for 9.7 percent.

"My gut tells me that basically it is not going to be a competitive advantage," said Larry Ponemon, chairman and founder of the Ponemon Institute, an independent research company. "I think people will look at it and see it as a cool thing, and they may use it. But I don't think it will be a market differentiator."

Ponemon said many surveys showed that while about three in four Americans said they were concerned about privacy, their concern was not sufficient to make them change their behavior toward sharing personal information. About 8 percent of Americans were concerned enough about privacy to routinely take steps to protect it, the surveys showed.

"Privacy only becomes important to the average consumer when something blows up," Ponemon said.

Of course, something has already blown up. Last year, AOL released the queries conducted by more than 650,000 Americans over three months to foster academic research. While the queries where associated only with a number, rather than a computer's address, reporters for The New York Times and others were quickly able to identify some of the people who had done the queries. The queries released by AOL included searches for deeply private things like "depression and medical leave" and "fear that spouse contemplating cheating."

The incident heightened concerns about the risks posed by the systematic collection of growing amounts of data about people's online activities. In response, search companies have sought to reassure consumers that they are serious about privacy.

While companies say they need to keep records of search strings to improve the quality of search results and fight online scams, they have put limits on the time they retain user data.

Google and Microsoft make search logs largely anonymous or discard them after 18 months. Yahoo does the same after 13 months.

In recent months, privacy has emerged as an increasingly important issue affecting major Internet companies. Several consumer advocacy groups, legislators and competitors, for instance, have expressed concerns about the privacy implications of the proposed $3.1 billion merger between Google and the ad serving company DoubleClick, which is being reviewed by regulators in the United States and Europe.

Last month, the Federal Trade Commission held a forum to discuss concerns over online ads that appear based on a user's Web visits. And just last week, the popular social networking site Facebook suffered an embarrassing setback when it was forced to rein in an advertising plan that would have informed users of their friends' buying activities on the Web. After more than 50,000 of its members objected, the company apologized and said it would allow users to turn off the feature.

In some cases, companies have argued that they are required to keep records of search queries for some time to comply with laws in various countries.

"Those arguments are seriously undermined when their competitors erase data immediately," said Chris Hoofnagle, a senior lawyer at the Samuelson Law, Technology & Public Policy Clinic at the University of California, Berkeley.

Hoofnagle and other privacy advocates said they hoped AskEraser would pressure Google and others to offer a similar feature. A Google spokesman said the company takes privacy seriously but is not currently developing a service to immediately discard search queries.

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