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12/12/2007
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Ask.com Launches Search Privacy Feature

AskEraser can eliminate a users' IP addresses, user IDs, session ID cookies, and the complete text of search queries from the Ask.com servers.

Ask.com, which bills itself as "the other search engine," launched a new feature this week to set it apart from its more popular competitors.

The search engine's AskEraser feature will delete search queries from Ask.com servers upon user request. Files and fields to be deleted from the database include: users' IP addresses, user IDs, session ID cookies, and the complete text of search queries within hours.

"Ask.com is serious about privacy," parent company IAC Search and Media said in a statement posted on its Ask.com Web site. "We are committed to meeting and exceeding emerging privacy trends in the search industry. Not only will we proactively delete the search activity of all Ask.com users from our servers after 18 months, but we also offer AskEraser, which, when enabled, deletes your search activity within hours."

Users can activate the feature by clicking on AskEraser in a link in the upper right hand corner of Ask.com and its United Kingdom site. Once activated, Ask.com displays a notice telling users it is on.

The feature has its limitations.

First, it only works with Ask.com searches. Also, IAC said that when it runs automated systems to identify and block bots, it cannot delete the information. The information also could be retained if technicians must work on problems such as denial of service attacks, or other technical issues.

In other words, in some cases, the company may take longer to delete searches.

The feature cannot prevent third-party companies from retaining information accessed through their servers. It cannot work if users access Ask.com through toolbars and search boxes on third-party sites. It also cannot delete information accessed through search boxes embedded in Firefox, Internet Explorer, and browsers that don't allow AskEraser to function.

IAC still has to comply with legal requests. That means that search activity will be stored, even if a user has activated Ask Eraser, if law enforcement investigators provide legal authorization to obtain the information. IAC said it will only turn over the information for requests pursuant to "due process," indicating that it will set high standards and not turn over information based on informal or unauthorized requests.

Finally, the feature itself uses cookies to indicate that AskEraser is turned on and to indicate whether a user has agreed to view unfiltered results. IAC said the AskEraser cookie expires after two years and only retains the date and time that the user activated the feature. The cookie allowing unfiltered results expires after 20 minutes, IAC said.

Using the eraser also prevents Ask.com from personalizing searches, choosing a home-page background, saving links, and saving search results.

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