Search engines set hard privacy question by Ask

Google and the other leading internet search engines will face new pressure to increase their privacy protection for internet users after today, following a move by a rival that brings a new level of control to how search queries are handled.

The initiative, by fourth-ranked search engine, marks the latest round in a "privacy race" that has seen the search companies rush to outdo each other this year in bringing new protection for their users.

The scramble comes amid increasing attention being paid to online privacy in Washington and Brussels, and calls for a new level of regulation from online advocacy groups.

"Starting this spring and summer, we've seen a lot of competition around privacy in the search space," said Alissa Cooper, a policy analyst at the Center for Democracy and Technology, a Washington. "That's good for consumers."

In the latest round, said it would let its users erase all their search records as soon as they had been entered, rather than having them saved on the search engine's servers.

Search companies mostly keep the data for 18 months - a shorter time than in the past following voluntary changes in practice made earlier this year - and use it to analyse user behaviour and deliver more relevant advertising.

Jim Lanzone, Ask's chief executive officer, said the new level of control was a response to rising concerns over privacy among internet users, as well as rumblings from government agencies.

However, he also defended his company's practice of keeping search queries for users who do not take advantage of the new "opt-out", since the information is kept in anonymous form and not linked to the individual users.

Through the series of concessions made in recent months, the search companies have hoped to meet the rising expectations around privacy without giving too much ground on commercially important practices.

Mr Lanzone said even if a sizeable minority of users use the opt-out it would not hamper Ask's business, since the company only uses samples to build its advertising targeting model.

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