Microsoft Agrees To Reduce Time It Keeps Search Data

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Microsoft's search engine, MSN Live Search, currently holds onto records for up to 18 months. However, Microsoft said that it would be willing to comply with a request to keep records no longer than six months, which was issued by Article 29 Working Party, a European Commission advisory panel, comprised of data protections specialists from 27 European countries.

"Today, Microsoft announced that it's prepared to meet the Article 29 Working Party's guidelines for search anonymization but believes it is imperative that all search companies adopt the same standard to truly protect people's privacy," said Peter Cullen, chief privacy strategist for Microsoft, in a blog post. "We agree with the Article 29 Working Party's call for a common industry standard for search data anonymization methods and time frames to help protect people's privacy. We've evaluated the multiple uses of search data and believe that we can, in time, move to a six-month time frame while retaining our strong method of anomymization."

Cullen added that in order for the Article 29 Working Party's request for a unified industry standard to be effective, competing search engines with larger European market share than Microsoft's would also have to agree to its terms.

"We don't believe that Microsoft moving alone will offer the level of consumer protection desired by the Working Party," he said. "All search companies must embrace high privacy standards to provide genuine protection for European consumers."

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In terms of market share, Google comprises the bulk of the European search engine business, occupying almost 80 percent of the total, according to comScore, a research firm based in Reston, Va. Google was followed by Russian search engine Yandex, which occupies 3.1 percent of searches in Europe, Yahoo at about 2 percent and Microsoft, coming in at 1.9 percent.

Meanwhile, both engine giants Yahoo and Google have faced pressure to reduce the time they hold onto customer information. Yahoo reduced the length of time it retains customer records in July 2007 to 13 months, while Google cut the amount of time it keeps records in half from 18 months to nine months earlier this year.

Google legal counsel said that the search engine was actually the first to anonymize its server logs to protect users' privacy.

"Earlier this year, we already moved to anonymize IP addresses in our server logs after nine months, significantly shorter than our previous 18-month retention policy," said Peter Fleischer, global privacy counsel for Google, in an e-mail. "We continue to engage with data protection officials, government leaders and privacy advocates around the world to explain our privacy practices and to work together to develop ways to improve privacy. We will continue to work constructively with the authorities."

All search engines hold onto records that track and analyze users' online behavior in order to more accurately target and appropriate advertising. However, critics have cited that keeping these records has consistently raised concerns regarding users' privacy and identity concerns, due to the fact that the search engines monitor and scrutinize exactly where users go and what they buy online.

"Consumers, the privacy community, policy makers and regulators are becoming increasingly interested in how search companies handle the data they collect," Cullen said. "Consumers want assurance that their privacy is protected while also being provided with search and other online services that meet their needs."

Yahoo did not immediately respond to ChannelWeb requests for comment.