Search privacy - good or bad?

As the battle for search privacy heats up, an important development from the Ask.com camp arose Friday afternoon that may prove to be a stepping stone for all other search engine policies.

Don Reisinger
CNET contributor Don Reisinger is a technology columnist who has covered everything from HDTVs to computers to Flowbee Haircut Systems. Besides his work with CNET, Don's work has been featured in a variety of other publications including PC World and a host of Ziff-Davis publications.
Don Reisinger
3 min read

As the battle for search privacy heats up, an important development from the Ask.com camp arose Friday afternoon that may prove to be a stepping stone for all other search engine policies.

According to Ask.com, the company will be rolling out a new section on its site offering users the option of controlling whether their searches are recorded. And although Google touts itself as the least evil of the bunch, people all over the world are questioning why Ask.com was the first to introduce this defiant and progressive stance on privacy.

The new project will be called Ask Eraser and each search page will include language reminding users of their option. To add even more privacy, the company will be instituting a new policy where it will erase all identifying information from a user's searches after 18 months.

So what does this mean for you and me? Well, to be honest I might consider switching over to Ask.com if its services would equal Google's. Regardless of my privacy preferences, sometimes I need the best available information and frankly, Ask.com ranks towards the bottom of that list. And while I applaud Ask for enhancing our privacy, I can't help but think that it doesn't matter all that much.

More than anything else, Ask.com's announcement that it will be giving users the ability to decide just how private their search queries will be is a marketing ploy. Think about it: Google is the de facto leader in the industry and other search engines simply don't have the infrastructure or technology to compete on search results, so they need to find something else to get ahead. Ask has chosen the only issue that could significantly damage Google in the future: privacy.

If you've been following the complaints made against Google as of late, you know that the company is struggling on the issue of privacy. On one hand it wants to appeal to the public who is asking for absolute privacy, while on the other hand, the company feels it needs to play by government rules. And as we have learned, Google can't have it both ways. But because Ask.com currently travels under the proverbial radar, the company can play the PR game and appeal to those who are looking for the "most private" searching experience.

I think this is whole thing is ridiculous. How many people actually believe that if the government came a-knockin', Ask wouldn't roll over and give them exactly what they wanted? If you believe the company's CEO wouldn't offer them everything the government asked for and then some, you're kidding yourself.

I'm not trying to say that this isn't a good start for this business or claim that I disagree with what Ask is doing, I just don't think anything will come out of it (no matter how much I wish something would). I would like nothing more than to have all of my searches private. And while I have nothing to hide while I search, the queries are used for advertising research just as much as security, and obtrusive advertising is one of those things that really ruffles my feathers.

Which brings me to another complication: Ask.com uses Google's ad service -- you know, that service that Google profits from by collecting and vetting a user's private information. So if Google and Ask.com have a contract for ad services, how can Ask unilaterally come out and say that it won't be collecting private data from users who ask it not to? Won't Google take issue with this as the less-effective the advertising becomes, the less revenue it will incur? Further, is Ask willing to relinquish that revenue potential just because it wants to look like the good guy? Sure there might be other services that can target ads efficiently, but advertising is all about consumer knowledge and without it, it's just plain useless.

So as we enter a time where privacy issues continue to plague the world where a select few are ruining it for the majority, Ask.com is trying to look like the good guy in a battle that it knows it can't win. Regardless of what we would like to believe, Ask.com can play dumb for so long until it's required to comply with lawmakers. It might work for some, but until there is some teeth behind a privacy announcement, I'll stick with Google.