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Thomas Claburn
Thomas Claburn
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Hitting Google Where It Hurts

Since the beginning of the month, both Microsoft and Yahoo have been hitting Google where it hurts: in its privacy policy.

Since the beginning of the month, both Microsoft and Yahoo have been hitting Google where it hurts: in its privacy policy.Earlier this month, Microsoft offered to retain search data for only six months, if Google and Yahoo agreed.

On Wednesday, Yahoo called Microsoft's bet and raised the stakes by agreeing without condition to anonymize user log data, page views, page clicks, ad views, and ad clicks within 90 days, except under limited circumstances.

Unable to make inroads against Google in the search advertising market, Microsoft and Yahoo are pursuing a strategy pioneered by the smaller search engines, which have long differentiated themselves from Google through their privacy practices.

Ask, for example, offers a service called AskEraser that lets the user decide whether to allow search data to be retained. "When enabled, AskEraser will completely delete your search queries and data from Ask.com servers, including: your IP address, User ID, and Session ID cookies, as well as the complete text of your search query -- all within a matter of hours, except in rare circumstances," Ask explains on its Web site.

Metasearch engine Ixquick has been deleting search data within 48 hours since 2006.

Google has had its moments as a champion of privacy, most notably when it declined to provide search data to the U.S. Department of Justice in 2005 and 2006. In March 2007, it was the first major search engine to agree to dispose of search log data after 18 months. And in September, it said it would anonymize IP addresses on its server logs after 9 months.

But it has stumbled, too, as may be inferred from a study released earlier this week: It found that Google no longer ranks among the top 20 most trusted companies for privacy. In 2007, Google was ranked "hostile to privacy" in a report by Privacy International. Google watchers have observed that privacy remains Google's Achilles' heel.

Google's attitude toward privacy has been similar to its attitude toward copyright: It's better to seek forgiveness than to ask permission. Had it not applied that philosophy to potential copyright entanglements, we might never have had access to YouTube, or Google News, or book searches, for example. So there's something to be said for forging ahead in the face of complaints.

Services like Google Maps Street View might never have come to be had Google erred on the side of privacy. But a bit more thought before products are released might convince people that Google's position on privacy is something more than posturing to protect its revenue stream. Following the launch of Street View, Google faced privacy lawsuits and numerous complaints, none of which made it seem like the company viewed privacy as a priority.

Security that's an afterthought fails; the same can be said about privacy.

Over the summer, Google did itself no favors by resisting calls from privacy groups to put a link to its privacy policy on its front page. Its reasoning was driven by engineering: It didn't want to add even a millisecond to Google.com's load time with extraneous text links. But privacy is an emotional issue more than a rational one. By the time Google accepted that and agreed to add a privacy link, the damage was done.

The heart of the problem is that Google has become convinced that personalization is the future of search. Think for a moment about what that means: Search technology has hit a wall. Algorithms aren't enough anymore.

The more Google knows about you, the more relevant its search results will be and the better it will be able to target ads to your interests. Some Google users appreciate that intimacy. Some don't care. And some find it creepy and don't want to have that kind of relationship with an online company.

If Google fails to understand that and to accommodate privacy concerns more flexibly, it risks losing its dominance to a search company willing to offers users more control over the data they own and the data they generate.

Don't count Microsoft or Yahoo out just yet. The more willing they are to cater to user privacy concerns, the more Google will look like a stalker.

How could Google capture the high ground? Well, if Amazon can manage 1-Click purchasing, Google might want to try 1-Click deletion of all data associated with a user. That would be a good start.

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