Microsoft Targets Google's Achilles Heel: Privacy

Microsoft just announced a new policy regarding the privacy of Bing searches, and it's superior to how Google handles privacy. Microsoft is clearly taking dead aim at Google's Achilles heel --- fears that Google collects so much information that it will become the tech version of Big Brother.

Peter Cullen, Microsoft Chief Privacy Strategist, today announced on his blog that Microsoft will adhere to privacy standards established by data protection officers of the European Union, the Article 29 committee. Microsoft will delete the IP addresses associated with searches after six months; currently it does that after 18 months. Cullen writes on his blog:

"Under our current policy, as soon as Microsoft receives a Bing search query we take steps to de-identify the data by separating it from account information that could identify the person who performed the search. Then, at 18 months, we take the additional step of deleting the IP address, the de-identified cookie ID and any other cross-session IDs associated with the query. The core components of this policy will not change. Our new policy will change the date at which we delete the IP address associated with search queries to six months. We will implement the new policy over the next 12 to 18 months."

Google's policy has a nine-month cutoff, but even then it doesn't completely erase the IP address. Computerworld reports "Google still retains part of the address after its self-imposed nine-month cut-off point."

Microsoft immediately took aim at Google, aksing the company to improve its privacy policy. Computerworld reports that John Vassallo, Microsoft's VP for E.U. affairs and its associate general counsel said:

"There should be a common standard across the industry. The largest search provider collects more data than anyone else. We think it is critical that the market leader matches this."

Google has been under fire for quite some time for its privacy policies among consumer groups, governments, and even the tech community, where it generally gains otherwise high marks. For example, back in December, Asa Dotzler, Mozilla's director of community development, asked that Firefox users immediately switch to Bing from Google because of Google's privacy issues. He was incensed that Google CEO Eric Schmidt said in an MSNBC interview:

"If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place. If you really need that kind of privacy, the reality is that search engines, including Google, do retain this information for some time and it's important, for example, that we are all subject in the United States to the Patriot Act and it is possible that all that information could be made available to the authorities."

My guess is that Schmidt will eventually see the light, and Google will eventually follow Microsoft's lead. At this point, the only thing that can put a dent in Google's market dominance is the possibility of government regulators taking action against it. The U.S. government as well as European governments are clearly worried about the privacy implications of Google's near monopoly in search. To fend them off, expect Google to take privacy far more seriously.

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