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Ask.com offers AskEraser tool to protect privacy

Search engine's 'PR boost' in battle with Google

Ask.com has added a new privacy feature called AskEraser that deletes a user's search activity data from the search engine's servers.

When enabled by Ask users, the feature will completely delete search queries and associated cookie information from Ask.com servers - including IP addresses, user IDs, session IDs and the text of queries made, according to the company. In most cases, the deletion will take place within a few hours of the time a search is completed, the company said.

The feature is available to users of the company's UK and US search engines and is designed to give users more control over their search data, the company said. "AskEraser is simple, straightforward and easy-to-use. It is an idea whose time has come," said Ask.com CEO Jim Lanzone.

The new feature is a step in the right direction, but it doesn't go far enough in addressing consumer privacy concerns, said Jeff Chester, executive director for the Center for Digital Democracy. Allowing users more control over their search data is likely to give Ask.com - which lags behind Google and other search engines - an important PR boost, Chester said. It also strikes all the right notes at a time when there is growing concern around online privacy, he said.

But there are important caveats to keep in mind, Chester said, Ask.com, for instance, will still collect and store user search data by default, unless the user specifically enables AskEraser, Chester said. And enabling AskEraser does nothing to prevent third parties with whom Ask.com has relationships from collecting and storing search data.

With third parties, Ask.com will continue to supply user information such as IP addresses, the last URL visited, browser and platform type, data in undeleted cookies from Ask.com and the search query data itself. A recent Ask.com deal with Google for search display advertising would also allow the search giant to gain access to some of its smaller rival's search data, Chester said.

Ask.com has also said that it will also retain user search data in cases where it is required by law to do so, according to Chester. Formal legal requests for search data will continue to be honoured, even if AskEraser is enabled.

As a result, Chester argued that Ask.com still hasn't fully addressed consumer privacy concerns.

"Some privacy advocates will suggest that this announcement shows the 'market' is working," he said. "No doubt, that's what Google and the other online advertisers opposed to a serious privacy policy will echo, whispering it to regulators, lawmakers and journalists. That's why a national privacy policy is required."

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