by Timothy Lee
Tue, Dec 11th 2007 11:31pm
Ask.com is seeking to differentiate itself from its more popular competitors by adding a new feature called AskEraser that will prevent Ask from retaining personal information about its users. A prominent link on the front page will allow users to turn AskEraser on and off. When it's set to "on," Ask will automatically discard the information it normally collects in order to provide users with personalized service.It's great to see Ask focusing attention on search engine privacy, and giving users more choices is rarely a bad thing, but I can't help feel like this is more a marketing gimmick than a serious privacy initiative. In the first place, as the Times article points out, Ask will still be feeding query information to Google, which has not promised to respect the user's AskEraser setting. This would seem to limit the usefulness of the service for users who don't want their activities tracked or recorded. But the more serious flaw, it seems to me, is that it forces the user into making an all-or-nothing choice between privacy on the one hand a personalization on the other. I doubt very many users want either perfect anonymity with no personalization, or compete personalization with no privacy. Rather, most users want a search engine that strikes a reasonable balance by collecting the minimum amount of information necessary to provide useful personalization services and handling that data in sensible ways that enhance user privacy. Rather than an all-or-nothing choice between functionality or privacy, search engines should make clear to users the trade-offs they face and let them choose which personalization features they want to enable. In addition, there are lots of ways search engines can enhance privacy without any significant reduction in functionality. For example, earlier this year Google announced that they would start anonymizing their logs after 18 months, a small but sensible way to protect customer privacy. More steps like that would enhance the privacy of all users, not just those who are privacy-conscious enough to click the AskEraser link.
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