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Ask, Microsoft Talk Search Privacy

Ask.com and Microsoft today suggested that the search industry have a conversation about consumer privacy in an age of online advertising and search. What it really is: the third- and fifth-place U.S. search providers calling out the market leaders.

That means Google and Yahoo .

In a statement, the companies said they want "leading search providers, online advertising companies and privacy advocates" to join them toward their goal of providing "privacy principles" for the search industry.

And while Ask and Microsoft said they also hoped to work with other technology leaders, consumer advocacy organizations and academics, they emphasized their hope that other, unnamed, "leading search providers" would join the talks.

According to Nielsen//NetRatings, the two companies lead the industry in searches in June, Google with 3.9 billion searches and Yahoo with 1.5 billion. Microsoft's total came in just under 1 billion and Ask's 500 million.

"We hope others in the industry will join us in developing and supporting principles that address these important issues. People should be able to search and surf online without having to navigate a complicated patchwork of privacy policies," Peter Cullen, Microsoft chief privacy strategist, said in a statement.

Yahoo responded to the call with news of its own. In an e-mail statement to internetnews.com, a Yahoo spokesman said Yahoo's new global policy is to anonymize all search log data within 13 months of collection, except where users request otherwise or where Yahoo is required to retain the information to comply with legal obligations.

"We believe the 13-month policy is the appropriate timeline to meet our commitment to our users' privacy while preserving our ability to continue to defend against fraudulent activity and improve our services to advertisers, publishers and users," the spokesperson said.

Peter Fleischer, Google global privacy counsel, said in an e-mail statement to internetnews.com that the company is "delighted" its recent decision to anonymize search after 18 months has stimulated debate across the industry.

"Debate and discussion are good for users," Fleischer said. "That's why we have made improvements to our policies over the last few months. We'll continue to do so in the future and look forward to working with other companies, regulators and others."

He said that Google believes our privacy policy should be based on transparency and user choice.

What Fleischer didn't mention is that Google's decision to anonymize its user search logs after 18 months only came after pressure from the European Union (EU). After initial European Union heat earlier in 2007, Google only first agreed to anonymize its data after between 18 and 24 months.

But on May 16, the Article 29 Working Party, an advisory panel composed of representatives from all of the EU's national data-protection authorities, sent Google a letter calling 24 months a "step in the right direction," but one that doesn't go far enough.

So Google loosened its grip to 18 months.

IAC-owned Ask.com might see privacy as a way to distinguish itself.

Last week, Ask debuted a new product called AskEraser to allow users to change their privacy preference at any time. As Ask's recent television and print advertising campaign pushing "the Algorithm" indicates, the company is desperate to climb up from its 2.1 percent market share of searches.

Ask and Microsoft said they expect to provide an update in September on their progress toward talks.