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Microsoft + Yahoo = A Privacy Arms Race Among Web Giants ??

When Internet giants team up, civil-liberties advocates tend to worry that their consolidated power will end up hurting the privacy of average users. An agreement between Microsoft and Yahoo to work together on Web search is no different. But at least one expert thinks it could re-energize a three-year trend that has delivered to consumers more privacy protections around the search data Internet companies store.

Jules Polonetsky, director of the research group Future Privacy Forum and formerly chief privacy officer at AOL and DoubleClick, thinks the tie-up could restart competition among the big search providers for bragging rights to who has the best practices.

Both Microsoft and Yahoo are deeply committed to protecting consumer privacy,” said Mike Hintze, associate general counsel at Microsoft. “We will continue to look for ways to enhance consumer privacy as we move forward with this agreement, in close collaboration with customers, consumer advocates, industry partners, and governments.”

Yahoo currently retains data about people’s search queries — including keywords searched, cookie information and IP address, but no names or addresses Microsoft retains search data for 18 months, after which it says it moves to “complete anonymization.” The company has also said it will reduce its retention period to 6 months — the time frame preferred by European regulators — if Google agrees to do so as well.

Google, the search-market giant with 65 percent share, retains data for nine months, after which it makes IP addresses more difficult to tie to actual people. Then at 18 months, it makes cookie information anonymous. Retaining and mining vast amounts of data reinforces Google’s supremacy in search because the insight it gains helps it to improve its engine and services.

The incident set off a new conversation about what data search engines keep and how long they keep it (and got Mr. Polonetsky the top privacy job at AOL). Soon, European regulators signaled that they thought Internet companies should not hold on to search data beyond six months. The companies, which aim to operate under one global policy, began making changes.

Three years ago they all had the data forever,” Mr. Polonetsky said. He then added, “They’ve all brought the time frames down and added privacy restrictions. I’m hoping that this period we’ve seen of search competition is given another boost by this” team-up of Microsoft and Yahoo.

People uncomfortable with the big three’s policies have options. You can use Ixquick, which runs queries through popular engines anonymously and doesn’t keep IP addresses. And there is Ask.com and its AskEraser feature for deleting search activity from the engine’s servers, though it has not entirely escaped criticism.

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