Other search engines follow Google's disputed privacy lead

The internet's major search engines are following Google's lead in limiting their collection of information about web users and their searches. Microsoft, Yahoo! and Ask.com are taking action after controversial policy changes by Google.

Google announced earlier this year that it would anonymise search engine logs after between 18 and 24 months, later reducing that period to 18 months. It had previously kept the link between searches and the IP address of a user indefinitely.

Though it was increasing the privacy protections afforded to users, Google was criticised by data protection officials for keeping the link between searches and a user's identity for as long as 18 months.

Google's competitors have now said that they will change their retention policies as well, and have called for industry consensus on the issue. Microsoft and Ask.com have together called on the search industry to create communal safeguards for user data.

Microsoft and Ask.com want academics, companies and activists to jointly create guidelines on the duration for which user behaviour can be saved. They want a single, standardised approach to replace individual privacy policies.

"This is all about trust," said Peter Cullen, a chief privacy strategist for Microsoft. "It's in the interest of the companies, it's in the interest of consumers."

Microsoft said that it would match Google's pledge to anonymise search logs after 18 months, while Yahoo! announced a cut off point of 13 months. Ask.com said that it would produce a tool that would allow users to delete their search history at any time.

When Google became the first major search engine to volunteer the anonymising of data it gave the issue a higher than ever profile. The company was attacked by privacy watchdogs in Europe who said that the firm must conform to data protection standards.

The Article 29 Working Party is a committee of Europe's data protection officials which wrote to Google's global privacy counsel Peter Fleischer after his announcement of the change.

"The Article 29 Working Party considers a reduced storage period for server logs generated by the users of Google services as a valuable step to improve Google's privacy policies," said the letter. "However, it is of the opinion that the new storage period of 18 to 24 months on the basis indicated by Google thus far, does not seem to meet the requirements of the European legal data protection framework."

The EU's Data Retention Directive says that countries must soon pass laws mandating the retention of telecoms data for between six and 18 months. Google claimed that this means that they must keep search logs for that long.

The Article 29 Working Party, though, said that it believed that the Directive does not apply to search logs.

Technology law podcast OUT-LAW Radio revealed earlier this month that Fleischer rejected the Working Party's opinion.

"Remember the Data Retention Directive comes out of the security side of government, not the data protection side," said Fleischer. "So it's interesting to me to hear what an official from the data protection world thinks about data retention, but it's like asking somebody who works for the railroad what they think of airline regulation. It's just not their field."