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Search Privacy Report Calls For Federal Regulation

The report calls for search companies to do some soul-searching about balancing advertising needs with user privacy.

The Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT), a cyber liberties advocacy group, on Wednesday issued a report assessing the privacy policies of the five major Internet search companies.

CDT's Search Privacy Practices report provides a detailed comparison of AOL, Ask.com, Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo, and makes several recommendations about how search companies and lawmakers can address search privacy issues.

"We hope this signals the emergence of a new competitive marketplace for privacy," CDT President Leslie Harris said in a statement. "By themselves, these recent changes represent only a small step toward providing users the full range of privacy protections they need and deserve, but if this competitive push continues it can only stand to benefit consumers."

The major search engines have been moving cautiously toward greater privacy and data protection in order to balance the benefits they gain from access to search data with the risks of retaining it.

Consumers have AOL to thank for bringing the issue to the forefront. A year ago, following the company's inadvertent release of about 20 million search queries from some half a million users, it became apparent that search queries could sometimes be linked to individuals even without the IP address information typically used to associate a user and a search query.

The privacy high-ground right now is held by Ask.com, which CDT recognizes for its planned AskEraser search data deletion product.

"Giving users true control over which information is linked back to them should be the ultimate goal," the report says.

Ask appreciated the recognition. "The CDT report is a timely, welcome and positive reaffirmation of Ask's ongoing commitment to setting the gold standard for user choice on privacy," said Nicholas Graham, a spokesperson for Ask.com, in an e-mailed statement. "And -- as the CDT report calls-out -- AskEraser's debut later this year will continue to set Ask apart from the rest of the industry on protecting user privacy."

The report calls for search companies to do some soul-searching about balancing advertising needs with user privacy. It advocates further research into ways to personalize searches without compromising the privacy of personal data. And it urges search companies to use contrasts to enforce privacy standards among partner organizations.

Perhaps the report's most controversial recommendation is for a comprehensive federal privacy law.

"No amount of self-regulation in the search privacy space can protect consumers from bad actors," the report concludes. "With consumers sharing more data than ever before online, the time has come to harmonize our nation's privacy laws into a simple, flexible framework."

With any luck, such a law would prove more effective than federal anti-spam legislation.

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