Ask.com debuts erasable searches, with stipulations

Oakland-based search engine Ask.com debuted "AskEraser" today, a feature which can mark all of a user's queries in the company's servers for deletion.

Ask.com, the fifth largest US search engine according to Nielsen Online in October, announced earlier this year that it would be making this feature available. Developed in conjunction with the Center for Democracy and Technology, an advocacy group working toward enhancing privacy and free expression, Ask.com claims it's the only search engine that affords users such control over their personal data.

Dutch meta-search engine Ixquick contests this claim, agreeing that the feature is a step in the right direction, but adding that Ask.com is neither the only search engine to offer query deletion nor is it a complete solution.

Since Ask.com relies on Google for text-based Adwords links, even when AskEraser is turned on, some user data still is shared with the top-ranked search engine. The AskEraser FAQ states quite clearly, "We cannot delete your search activity from the servers of third-party companies that receive your search queries to provide you with certain aspects of our search results, sponsored search results, and other product features."

Furthermore, regarding the length of time the data is retained after query, Ask.com says it purges the servers after "a number of hours." That nebulous time descriptor could mean data is kept for as little as 48 hours like Ixquick, or as much as 12,960 hours (18 months) like MSN and like Google, which also changed its policy earlier this year. It will most likely be closer to the lower figure, of course.

Regardless of any imperfections with the service, the introduction of AskEraser could be perceived by privacy advocates as a step in the right direction, addressing what has been, and will continue to be, a hot-button issue.

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