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TechNewsWorld.com

Yahoo Yodels New Privacy Tune

By Walaika Haskins
Jul 25, 2007 8:00 AM PT

Yahoo became the latest major Internet search provider to alter its user privacy policy Monday. Under the new plan, the company said, it will anonymize search histories after only 13 months, five months earlier than its search competitors at Google, Microsoft and Ask.com.

Yahoo Yodels New Privacy Tune

"One of the core tenets of this company is the relationship and trust we have with our users. We are moving forward with a new approach to user search data," Jim Cullen, a Yahoo spokesperson, told TechNewsWorld.

"Yahoo's new global policy is: All search log data will be anonymized 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 continue to defend against fraudulent activity and improve our services to advertisers, publishers and users," he added.

The company has not set a specific date to roll out the new policy, but Cullen said, "We are moving forward to implement as soon as possible. No specific timeline has been set."

Private Party

Yahoo's new policy shows a strong desire to compete in the marketplace based on consumer privacy, which in the end will benefit the consumer, Forrester Research analyst Jen Mulligan told TechNewsWorld.

Ask.com last Friday unveiled its AskEraser privacy tool; however, the search engine has a scant 1.8 percent share of the search market, according to data from Nielsen//NetRatings for April 2007, and therefore has relatively little influence within the industry. On the other hand, Yahoo, the No. 2 search provider, could bring about more changes within the industry with its new policy.

"Yahoo is also big enough that it may pressure others to shorten their time frame as well," Mulligan pointed out. "It depends on how customers react to the announcement. "

However, Mulligan cautioned, users should not expect to see any further alterations from Google, Microsoft and Ask.com any time soon.

"It would be a bit embarrassing for Google or Microsoft to change their position so quickly having just made their announcements, backed up with justifications that they need that amount of data," she said.

Behind the Privacy Curtain

The seemingly sudden spate of privacy policy alterations are attributable to several factors, Mulligan explained. Google's privacy policy, the leading search engine with 55 percent of the market, has come under increasing scrutiny in both the U.S. and the European Union (EU). The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is looking at Google's US$3.1 billion purchase of DoubleClick, a leading online advertising company, and has said it may act to modify or block the deal based on concerns that joining the two firms' immense databases of user activity records could jeopardize searchers' privacy.

Meanwhile across the pond, the EU's regulators are giving the company's privacy policy a thorough examination to determine whether it violates privacy laws there. Announced in May, the investigation by the EU's data protection advisory agency was prompted by complaints from the Article 29 Data Protection Working Group, which advises the European Commission. In a June response, Google shortened its data retention time in Europe to 18 months, after which it said the information would be anonymized.

"The precipitating factors are e-discovery laws and Google's interactions with the regulators in the EU to determine if they are in compliance with EU laws," Mulligan explained. "Once Google made the announcement, the press and regulators have slowly examined the issue and noted that they should be looking at all of the other search providers as well."

Ask.com's AskEraser privacy tool -- through which users' can choose not to allow the search engine to retain any search data -- is a "great step forward," according to Mulligan. However, she warned that the company's call in conjunction with Microsoft for global privacy guidelines will have little or no immediate affect on the industry.

"I don't see a lot coming from this. I think the competitive moves like the ones we're seeing will determine acceptable global privacy standards eventually," she stated. "Privacy is one aspect that companies can compete with each other on, and is not something that companies need to work together to determine their bottom line."


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