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Ask.com Invites Users to Erase History

In the wake of privacy concerns (and outright scandals) involving Internet search engines, Ask.com is making a bid to differentiate itself from the pack by being the search engine that most respects its users’ privacy. Beginning today, Ask.com users can use the company’s new AskEraser tool to delete cookie information stored on Ask.com servers and prevent any future search queries from being recorded. Ask.com is featuring AskEraser prominently on the top right of its home page and search results pages, and AskEraser’s “on” or “off” status is remembered across Ask.com’s subsidiary services.

“For people who worry about their online privacy, AskEraser now gives them control of their search information,” said Ask.com CEO Jim Lanzone, in a statement. “AskEraser is simple, straightforward, and easy-to-use. It is an idea whose time has come.”

Ask.com announced plans for AskEraser back in July; it is currently available in the U.S. and UK, with rollout to other world markets expected in 2008.

When Ask.com announced AskEraser last July, the company also debuted new data retention policies designed to disassociate (or “anonymize”) search queries from IP addresses and cookie information that could be used to associate queries with individual Ask.com users after 18 months. The move followed a similar promise by Google to cut data retention periods to 18 months.

Concerns over anonymizing search records came in the wake of subpoenas from the Department of Justice in 2006 seeking search records from Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft in its efforts to defend the Child Online Protection Act (COPA). Only Google fought the subpoena, eventually winning a decision that vastly reduced the amount of data it turned over to the Justice Department. Consumer concerns were also highlighted when AOL published a selection of over 19 million poorly-anonymized search queries from its users, which, in many cases, could be traced to individual AOL users.

Offering a way for users to anonymize their search data doesn’t mean Ask.com is backing away from the sorts of search analysis and tracking that fuel the online advertising business. Ask.com will continue to leverage the value of the anonymized data to sell advertising and offer advertisers ways to more effectively target potential customers. “Anonymized search data provides online companies with important information to optimize the overall search experience,” said Ask.com senior VP Doug Leeds, in a statement.

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