Yahoo really opened a can of data privacy worms one week ago today when it said it would peel back its retention period for search user log data from 13 months to three months.
Inevitably, privacy pundits called for Google and Microsoft to step up and shrink the time they store users' search queries, IP addresses and cookies. Consumer Watchdog was among the most vocal of the group, choosing to target Google rather than No. 3 search provider Microsoft.
Two days after issuing a press release calling for Google to offer users the option to opt out of letting Google retain their search log data, Consumer Watchdog President Jamie Court and Policy Advocate John M. Simpson reaffirmed this request in this letter to Google CEO Eric Schmidt.
But they don't want Google to just match Yahoo's three months. Consumer Watchdog calls for zero months, as in zero data retention, if consumers wish it so:
"We call on you to offer Google's users such a clearly identifiable "opt out" function on its search engine that is essentially a zero personal data retention policy."
Court and Simpson used Ask.com's AskEraser service as the template for how zero retention can be done. Considering Ask.com has become the punchline to jokes about failed search engines, I'm not so sure Consumer Watchdog is winning any favor with Google on that one.
Court and Simpson also urged Schmidt to meet with them, the second time the group has requested a meeting in the last few months.
Consumer Watchdog and Google met via phone Oct. 20 to discuss the privacy measures of Google's Chrome Web browser. Google's letter in response strongly implies the group doesn't get how its Suggest feature and associated Chrome features work.
In their latest letter, Court and Simpson say Google's Nov. 26 letter from senior counsel Michael Yang "rebuts issues we have not raised and misstates our position." That's what we call a failure to communicate, or perhaps a deliberate, yet subtle way to feign ignorance, to misdirect the recipients from the issues. Seems like a stall tactic to me, or maybe just an effort to confound Consumer Watchdog into shutting up.
All of this makes me wonder why Simpson and Court think anything good will happen in asking for a meeting on the Friday before Christmas. Not much, I tell you. Google feels it needs our data to keep its search engine bringing in the billions. Right now, it's comfortable with storing that data for nine months, with Microsoft woefully behind at 18 months.
Does anyone really believe Google or Microsoft is going to flinch on this until they face a stern European Commission working party meeting on the issue in February? No, but give the watchdog group credit for trying. Someone has to keep these search giants honest.
What's most interesting to me is that while the European Commission has long argued for six months' retention, Yahoo is now at three, which may make the European privacy group raise its own ante to three months by February.
Then we might as well go down to zero retention. You can't convince me three months' worth of information does a whole lot of good. Of course, some out there feel Yahoo is just trying to sabotage the search space, a gesture of impotence in the face of an industry that is passing it by.
I've said it before and I'll say it again: The data privacy issue will come to a head in 2009, with the search vendors cracking under governmental pressure and moving toward a zero retention policy. Something has got to give. It's just isn't going to happen before the new year.