Ask.com challenges Google with data privacy feature

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The Independent Online

Ask.com, the US search engine owned by Barry Diller's IAC/InterActiveCorp, has broken ranks with its internet peers by launching a service that enables users concerned about their online privacy to delete their search records.

Internet search providers keep a user's online search data for up to 18 months in order to better understand search behaviour and to target individuals with relevant advertising. However, over the past year more internet users have become aware of the potential implications of identity theft and online fraud. With privacy becoming more of a hot topic, some users have also rebelled against targeted advertising, notably on the social networking site Facebook, which had to alter its system after hundreds of thousands of its users complained.

Ask.com, which has only a small slice of the global search market, is banking on its AskEraser function to attract users that have become concerned about how companies like Google are using archived data. By clicking on the AskEraser icon on the company's website, search data will be wiped from its servers, although some data could be retained for legal purposes and some because Ask relies on Google to deliver advertising links on its site.

Jim Lanzone, chief executive of Ask, said: "For people who worry about their online privacy, AskEraser now gives them control of their search information."

The service, which went live yesterday in the US and UK, has been welcomed by privacy groups, but until larger ISPs such as Google which controls well over half of the search market adopt similar initiatives, the impact of AskEraser is likely to be limited.

Google's $3bn (1.47bn) acquisition of the advertising company DoubleClick triggered a review by regulators in the US and Europe due to concerns about the amount of consumer information that the combined company would track and control.

Yet some experts cautioned against paying too much heed to criticism from privacy protesters. David Tansley, technology partner at Deloitte, said: "The online world should be careful not to over-react to demands for privacy. Companies should be careful to distinguish between the clamour of a vocal minority and the genuine concerns of a passive majority."

Mr Tansley said that most use of behavioural data is likely to be innocuous. "People usually regard it as a good thing when a supplier knows them well. If a maitre d' guides us to our usual table ... this is generally regarded as positive," he said.

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