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Search privacy gets hot: Microsoft and Ask.com tag-team

By Joel Hruska | Published: July 23, 2007 – 10:01AM CT

Microsoft has announced that it will change its current web search privacy policies in response to concern over online privacy and advertising industry consolidation. The company also said that it is joining the Network Advertising Initiative (NAI) later this year. 

Henceforth, Microsoft will make all Windows Live Search data anonymous after 18 months “unless the company receives user consent for a longer time period,” according to the company. The policy will be retroactive and will apply to all Microsoft search portals worldwide. Customer search data will also be stored differently than data explicitly tied to people (e-mail addresses, phone numbers, etc.), and no correlation of the two data types will be possible. All cookie user identification data will also be removed. For users who opt for longer data retention (for the purposes of customization services), Microsoft promises to be completely transparent with how that data is stored and handled. 

Microsoft has also joined forces with Ask.com in calling for the industry to formulate and adopt a specific, common set of privacy standards. Microsoft’s claim is that these new standards will give consumers far more control over their data privacy and how such information is used and distributed. In addition, the goal is to give customers a more cohesive single privacy policy, rather than the current patchwork of federal, state, and corporate privacy statutes.

“As search and other online services progress, it’s important for our customers to be able to trust that their information is being used appropriately and in a way that provides value to them,” said Peter Cullen, chief privacy strategist at Microsoft. “We hope others in the industry will join us in developing and supporting principles that address these important issues. People should be able to search and surf online without having to navigate a complicated patchwork of privacy policies.”

These moves come after Google’s own recent announcements regarding its anonymization of server logs and its further statements that the company will only retain cookie data for two years. 

Such movements from Microsoft and Google are more than just an act of oneupmanship—though there’s certainly an element of that at work—but are a broader response to consumer concerns and nasty allegations of antitrust behavior that’ve been flung around recently. With the Senate set to review Google’s proposed merger with DoubleClick and with Microsoft’s own recent purchase of aQuantive, its in the industry’s best interest to appear very concerned about personal privacy, even as market consolidations point towards more specific, focused, and, in a word, personalized advertising on the horizon.

It’s hard to see these developments as anything but positive, and we are expecting a similar announcement from Yahoo later this week.  

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EU puts on monocle, prepares to examine Google/DoubleClick merger

By Nate Anderson | Published: October 05, 2007 – 12:50PM CT

Microsoft just finished a long and hellish trip of its own through the EU competition wringer, and it looks like Google has a good chance of enjoying similar treatment. The European Commission has already announced that it is looking into the proposed Google/DoubleClick merger and plans to report back by October 26 on whether a full-scale examination of the deal is warranted. Thomson Financial now reports that the EU will in fact conduct such an examination.

If the news, which is based on sources close to the matter, turns out to be true, it won’t be particularly surprising. In addition to the European Commission’s own decision to launch an initial examination of the merger, opposition has surfaced in various places across Europe. BEUC, the European Consumers’ Organisation, has made the issue one of its current concerns.

In a letter sent to several EU officials, the group worried that “Google will vertically-leverage (bundle/tie) its keyword search dominance with DoubleClick’s leadership in online banner/video display advertising, and with its Google-YouTube dominance in video search. This vertical combination could give Google-DoubleClick clear dominance on the overall market for advertisements provided to third-party web sites.”

This worry is compounded by the fact that Google dominates the search market as well in most European countries. It has a 90 percent market share in Germany, 82 percent in France, and 75 percent in the UK (it comes in second in the Czech Republic, however).

Dr. Thilo Weichert, who handles data protection issues for the German state of Schleswig-Holstein, has also made his concerns known (German) to the EU’s Competition Commissioner, Neelie Kroes. His letter expresses concern over data security issues and the privacy of personal information collected by the combined company.

An EU inquiry of the merger shouldn’t be nearly as painful as what Microsoft went through; Google and DoubleClick haven’t yet merged and aren’t accused of illegal behavior. The EU could place limits on Google’s expansion in the EU (something that looks unlikely here in the US), but this won’t be an issue of fines… not that this would make the Googlers any happier about having their collective will thwarted by a regulator.

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