Ask.com is not asking "Will Privacy Sell"

There's a bunch of press around Ask.com's marketing of their new privacy service. I applaud them for thinking about this, and for drawing attention to the issue of search privacy.

The New York Times had a story, "Ask.com Puts a Bet on Privacy" and now Slashdot jumps in with "Will Privacy Sell?" This is the wrong question to ask, and is going to lead to bad thinking for a long time, because what Ask.com is selling is not privacy, and it's not a complete product.

I'll explain what it is, why it's not privacy, and why it's not going to sell.

The idea is that if you use AskEraser, Ask will not log what you're doing. Sounds good, right? No AOL embarrassing disclosures! What could possibly go wrong?

the information typed by users of AskEraser into Ask.com will not disappear completely. Ask.com relies on Google to deliver many of the ads that appear next to its search results. Under an agreement between the two companies, Ask.com will continue to pass query information on to Google. Mr. Leeds acknowledged that AskEraser cannot promise complete anonymity, but said it would greatly increase privacy protections for users who want them, as Google is contractually constrained in what it can do with that information.

So the user doesn't really get privacy. They get privacy with regards to Ask.com, but not with respect to Google.

That's not compelling. So I agree with Larry Ponemon, this isn't going to be competitive advantage, but he's wrong when he says "Privacy only becomes important to the average consumer when something blows up." Privacy is important to people, and they pay for it on a very regular basis, under two conditions:

  • First, they understand the threat.
  • Second, they understand the product being sold, and how it will protect them.

If you meet both of those conditions, and have an otherwise good product, you're golden. Ask fails on both. Curtains, mailboxes, and single family detached houses are all sold on the basis of privacy. People understand others looking in their windows, and they understand curtains protect them. People don't deeply get search engine record retention, and if they do, those who dig into AskEraser discover that Google can still keep its records.

So, what Ask.com is doing is offering a half-baked product. So if the question is "will half-baked products sell," then I think we all know they won't.

It's too bad that this is going to be seen as a nail in privacy's coffin. Nice move, Slashdot.

(This post draws heavily on my talk at the 2nd Annual Workshop on Economics and Information Security, where I presented on Paying for Privacy: Consumers and Infrastructures (or PDF or PPT) in which I look at consumer's willingness to pay for privacy.)