Microsoft Will Discard Search Data Sooner If Rivals Do Same

Microsoft will anonymize and discard data collected from search queries much sooner than it does now if its rivals do the same, the company said Tuesday.

Microsoft has endorsed European guidelines that suggest search engines should not keep sensitive information, ranging from IP (Internet Protocol) addresses to information from tracking cookies, beyond six months without heavily anonymizing the data.

The guidelines, released in April, were created by European Commission's Article 29 Data Protection Working Party, which is comprised of data protection officials from 27 European Union countries. Companies running search engines were due to file responses to the guidelines this week as the working party meets in Brussels. Microsoft outlined its position in a letter.

Whether the guidelines will turn into enforceable law remains to be seen. European data protection law now does not set a specific time limit for how long data can be retained, said John Vassallo, vice president of E.U. affairs for Microsoft.

Privacy activists warn that search engine data can reveal a plethora of information about a person and is retained for far too long by companies. Major search players such as Google, Yahoo and Microsoft have in the past argued they need data in order to improve their services.

The data protection authorities in different countries could choose to force technology companies to abide by the guidelines, Vassallo said. Technology companies are due to hold talks with the working party early next year, Vassallo said.

Microsoft believes the industry should endorse the six-month standard. However, the company won't change its current policy unless all in the industry agree to the standard, Vassallo said. Microsoft, which holds only 2 percent of the European search market, is desperately trying to increase its search market share.

Vassallo said Microsoft was a "latercomer" to European search, and that moving to the six-month standard on its own would result in "a very unlevel playing field."

Microsoft retains search data for 18 months before anonymizing it. In September, Google said it would anonymize IP addresses connected to specific searches that are recorded in its server logs after nine months. Google, which holds about 80 percent of the European search market, previously did that after 18 months. Yahoo anonymizes data after 13 months.

Google did not have any change in its position when contacted Tuesday. The company continues to work with data protection officials and privacy advocates, according to Peter Fleischer, Google's global privacy counsel.

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