2007 Archive

Searching for More Online Privacy? Boalt Expert Says Just Ask(.com)

 Privacy advocates are lauding Ask.com as one of the first online search engines to address growing concerns about protecting personal information. With its new “AskEraser” service, which lets users delete their search activity, the Oakland-based company hopes to set itself apart from larger competitors.

Search engines routinely keep records of the terms that users type in and link them to a computer’s Internet address — sometimes to the actual user. But when users turn on the AskEraser feature, Ask.com purges their search data within a few hours, the company says. Boalt Hall’s Chris Hoofnagle, a well-known privacy law expert, believes this could ultimately drive Ask.com’s competitors to offer a similar service.

"AskEraser will make it more difficult for the dominant search engines to retain data for as long as they wish," says Hoofnagle, a senior staff attorney at the Samuelson Law, Technology & Public Policy Clinic and a senior fellow with the Berkeley Center for Law & Technology. "Privacy risks are heightened when data is kept for a long period, and search engines are saying it’s impossible to shorten the retention time. AskEraser will definitely test that assertion."

Although Ask.com presumably hopes this new feature will help expand its share of the competitive search engine market, it remains unclear whether privacy concerns will influence consumer behavior. The company handled less than 5 percent of all U.S. searches conducted in October, well behind Google (more than 55 percent), Yahoo (20 percent) and Microsoft (14 percent).

"When the Justice Department is requesting search terms, or when a company is posting search terms in a way that makes users identifiable, that erodes consumer trust in the industry," Hoofnagle says. "Many implications flow from being able to identify individuals in putatively anonymous datasets. Researchers want to do their work without implicating individual privacy, companies may find more of their databases subject to privacy law, and consumers may find that a company jeopardizes their privacy by releasing information not considered harmful."

 AskEraser appears clearly on the Ask.com main page, and on pages of its specialized services for finding videos, images, news and blogs. Although third parties offer tools to conduct anonymous searches, Hoofnagle says that they are difficult to operate and often slow the search process. By contrast, users can activate or disable AskEraser with a single click.

Recent controversies have heightened debate about online privacy and how websites handle users’ personal information. In 2006, AOL released the search engine queries from more than 650,000 Americans, saying it wanted to make the data available to academics for research. Although the queries were associated only with an ID number, not a computer’s address, reporters could still identify many people who performed the queries.

The social networking site Facebook also sustained a humbling setback when it had to scale back an advertising program that would have informed users of their friends’ buying activities on the Web. More than 50,000 Facebook members objected, prompting the company to apologize and announce that users could disable the feature in question.

Online users have complained about search engines retaining their search queries because those records could be subpoenaed, culled by advertisers, or stolen by computer hackers. Search engine companies claim they need to keep such records for various reasons: Fighting online scams; improving the quality of search results; complying with laws in other countries; and combating "click fraud,'' where advertisers are assessed inflated charges. Google and Microsoft reportedly store personal information for 18 months, while Yahoo and AOL retain such records for 13 months.

"It’s becoming very difficult to assure that a database is anonymous, and there will have to be a reconsideration of what databases can be used for publicly available research," says Hoofnagle, who has testified many times before Congress on privacy matters."“Companies are very concerned about managing their brand in the marketplace, and privacy is a component of that brand. So if you have something like AskEraser, suggesting a brand trying to fix its privacy problem, consumers can see that as empowering."

By Andrew Cohen