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Ask.com To Stop Data Retention

Ask.com became the first major search engine to promise users it won't store data on their queries, giving the privacy conscious the option of conducting research on the Internet in relative anonymity.

The move comes amid increasing concerns about the release of search information through leaks or subpoenas. In some cases, the search terms a person uses can reveal plenty about medical conditions, marital troubles or kinky interests.

"What everyone's starting to see is competition for privacy," said Ari Schwartz, deputy director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, a Washington-based nonprofit that had consulted with Ask on the changes.

Company officials acknowledged Friday that the decision alone likely won't raise Ask's ranking among search engines. Ask, a unit of IAC/InterActiveCorp., is far behind Google Inc., Yahoo Inc., Microsoft Corp.'s MSN and Windows Live in the share of U.S. search queries.

"The number of people this is important to is small," said Doug Leeds, Ask's vice president of product management. "But to these people, it's very important."

The new controls won't guarantee user anonymity, however. As Ask's advertising partner, Google would receive and could retain the data in question. Search terms also appear in the Web address sent to Ask, and Internet service providers could retain that.

But Leeds said Ask would review contracts with Google and other third parties to limit what they could do with the information, and the company hoped the move would pressure rivals to also adopt tighter privacy controls.

A small search engine called Ixquick already promises to purge data within 48 hours, but for the most part users have little choice when they use a major search engine. Although the search engines have privacy policies restricting the release of data, all bets are off when a government agency or litigant in a lawsuit issues a valid subpoena.

Ask, which announced the changes late Thursday, said its AskEraser feature should be available by year's end.

Users would have to activate AskEraser, after which the company would stop retaining data such as the specific search terms and the Internet address identifying the user's computer. Leeds said users would be able to easily turn the feature on and off anytime.

For now, the settings won't be retroactive. Ask would continue to keep past data, though it is joining Google in promising to retain such information for 18 months only.

All the major search engines typically make search data available to law-enforcement authorities with subpoenas. Many had complied with a Justice Department request for search queries as part of the Bush administration's effort to revive a law meant to shield children from online pornography.

Concern over such data grew last summer when AOL released the search terms that more than 650,000 of its subscribers entered over a three-month period. The release was originally intended as a gesture to researchers, but the company later acknowledged it amounted to a privacy breach and a mistake.

Although AOL had substituted numeric IDs for the subscribers' real user names, the search queries themselves sometimes contained personally identifiable data.

One user, for instance, was repeatedly searching for information about divorcing someone whose husband is in the Army and about dating services in Oak Brook, Ill., while another kept searching for members of one family by name, along with a Chicago auto dealer and "naked Russian women."

By not retaining the information at all, Leeds said, Ask can assure it won't get released.

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