A search engine company that has won plaudits for its efforts to protect users' privacy is launching a proxy-surfing service on Thursday by which users can look at web pages without the knowledge of the page owner.
Proxy services allow web users to see pages via a third party's web server, meaning that the operator of the page only sees the IP address of that server. Using a proxy means that the site operator will not know the IP address of the page viewer or be able to place tracking cookies on the viewer's computer.
The service is being launched by Startpage, the US brand used by search engine company Ixquick. Ixquick was the first company to receive a 'privacy seal' from European Data Protection Supervisor Peter Hustinx for its attempts to improve the privacy protections afforded to its users.
In 2006 Ixquick decided to stop collecting the IP addresses of its users when processing their searches.
Ixquick operates as a metasearch engine, meaning that it collates results from other search engines, such as Google. Consequently, it handles less data for fewer purposes than other search engines. However, European data protection authorities have put pressure on other search engine operators to reduce the period for which they keep a log of IP addresses and the searches carried out by users of those machines. They recommend a retention period of six months or less.
Microsoft announced last week that it was reducing from 18 months to six the length of time for which it keeps search data. Google retains it for 9 months while Yahoo! keeps it for just 90 days.
Ixquick is now launching the proxy service as an extension of its privacy-protecting services.
"People are more concerned about online data retention policies than ever before," said chief executive Robert Beens. "We wanted to offer them a useful tool and this proxy is a logical extension of our services."
"A search engine is a starting point for people to visit other pages. Now our users can take the privacy they get with Startpage to the next step, and go privately to the sites they have found as well," he said. "This proxy completes the total search privacy picture."
A guide to the service published on the company's website said that it effectively stands between the user and the website to be visited.
"Startpage goes to the website you select, retrieves the page, and displays it for you," it said. "You are invisible to the website. They see only Startpage's IP address, not yours. Since you never make direct contact with the website, they can't see or store cookies on your browser."
The company said that the free service would go live on Data Privacy Day, which is tomorrow.
Beens told OUT-LAW Radio in 2008 that the company had not always taken such a hard line on user privacy but that he was reviewing the company in 2006 and realised that it was not necessarily in its interests to hold on to information.
"I asked the technology people what exactly are we keeping and why are we keeping those data. And they gave me the list of issues and items that we were keeping and recording in our log files and I said why are we keeping those data? And they didn't give me a good answer," he said.
"I said well if there's no reason for us to keep the data why don't we get rid of it. I don't want to have the liability on our company to keep someone's personal data because it is a liability and the only safe way of keeping someone's personal data is by deleting it," he said.