Time for online privacy

This week's announcement from Ask unveiling AskEraser highlights the concern in the market that users have over their online privacy. This is market forces at work - market need, a lead vendor responds, all the other vendors follow suit. By this rule, it is only a matter of time before Google, MSN Search and Yahoo put out a response - that they too will offer more control over user's privacy online, particularly pertaining to their search histories.

I believe this to be a very significant shift in the attention economy and that websites in the business of harvesting consumer clicks will need to think again. I forecast that in early, the major search engine providers adn ISPs will have altered their policy regarding the capture of click data. Whatever happens, change is afoot within the next few months, so here is my synopsis of the recent stories:

Why collect data?

In a quest to improve search services, search engine providers use individual search histories and click-data to better match the search results and advertisements to your requirements. Tailored advertising is the source of revenue for many of them and the ability to serve up the most relevant ad's will differentiate them in the eyes of the advertiser - the source of that revenue. As search services become more feature rich there is a need to use the user data to improve those services for the end users and personalization is a good way of doing that.

Ask Launches Ask Eraser

The AskEraser feature allows the user to erase their search history held by Ask. Additionally they will be implementing an 18 month data retention policy where data will be decoupled from cookies and IP addresses. Ask posted a description of this service on its blog. Barry Schwartz at SearchEnglineLand provided a good analysis of this this offering in the posting Ask.com Launches AskEraser Giving Searches Ability To Search Anonymously. The Wired article, Ask Rolls Out Search Eraser, But Google Will Still Know notes that Google will still capture some information via the Google ads place on Ask pages. A more detailed analysis of this can be found at Google Keeps What Ask.com Erases.

Google, AOL, Microsoft and Yahoo?

Google seem to be very aware of the situation and the Wired post Google Hires Gonzales' Privacy Lawyer reporting Google's appointment of Justice Department's chief privacy officer Jane Horvath to its legal team suggests that Google plans to be more proactive in this field.

The Micromarketing article Gatineau A Threat? reports on Microsoft's analytics solution (code named Gatineau). As yet, there is no sign of a response from AOL, Yahoo! or Microsoft, but I expect this to come pretty soon - almost certainly in the form of restricting how they capture and use click data, maybe even to give you more options of how your data is used to target advertising on you.

What do the Privacy Organizations Say

In his post Ask.com new Privacy Policy: We need Federal Rules for all—not just one imperfect corporate plan, Jeff Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy calls for national privacy legislation rather than leaving it up to market forces to drive privacy. At the time of writing, EFF, Privacy Rights International and Privacy.org remain silent on the matter.

Do searchers care?

The AP News article, Ask.com to Unveil New Privacy Control provides data points showing Ask to be the 5th largest search engine with a 3% market share. I am seriously worried about the privacy of my own data, but it would probably take a data breach or significant and demonstrable risk for me to switch from using Google as my primary search engine.

I personally believe that they should care, search and click data is valuable, perhaps not today, but soon. In my previous post Google Search Privacy - Plain and Simple I discuss why your search data is valuable.

What might happen next

Reading the Wired post by Ryan Singel Search Engine Privacy Changes Driven by Competion, Lawmakers & Lawsuits, Advocacy Group Reports the recent changes in retention periods seem to point to a general change in policy by the search engine providers. Another post from Ryan Singel, Under Scrutinty, Search Engines Start to Embrace Privacy; Will ISPs Be Next? mentions changes in the data retention policies of ISPs.


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