Microsoft is joining Ask.com in offering new privacy features for web searchers, and the two companies are now calling on the search and online advertising industry to develop a common set of privacy practices.
By the end of the year, Microsoft will give users a way to opt out of having their search data used to generate targeted advertising on Microsoft's Web sites, and it will also implement a new data retention policy that after 18 months will scrub all search query data of any information that could be used to identify the searcher.
"We think that we as an industry ought to take a look at ways to further enhance privacy protections," said Microsoft chief privacy strategist Peter Cullen.
"We are really trying to make sure that people always have the ability to have a trusted experience."
These steps are similar to those taken by Ask.com last week and are part of an effort to create industry consensus on privacy practices, Cullen said.
When visitors use Microsoft's Windows Live search engine, Microsoft stores the search queries along with some information on the person doing the searching in order to provide them with targeted advertising. Like all the major search providers, Microsoft doesn't associate names or email addresses with this data, but it does keep IP (Internet Protocol) addresses and some other identifying information, such as the postal codes of Windows Live users.
Privacy advocates are concerned that this data could be misused.
"Search terms are often about drugs, they're about sex and they are about rock and roll," said Peter Swire, a law professor with Ohio State University who was the White House's Chief Counselor for Privacy under the Clinton administration. "There are a lot of people who are feeling that they're doing a private exploration and wouldn't want their search terms as part of their permanent record."