There is a game worthy of the great "Tom & Jerry" cartoons afoot in the land of search engines.
On one side are Google, Yahoo and Microsoft, all of which collect user log data because they argue it helps them improve the way their search engines and other Web services work, maintain security and prohibit fraud. Google has great YouTube videos on the reasons for saving user logs, which include our search queries, IP addresses and cookies.
On the other side are privacy advocates, regulators and legislators, who argue that our civil liberties are being infringed upon at the level of bits and bytes. These groups don't want search engines storing user data any longer than they have to.
The European Commission's Article 29 Working Party, an ominous-sounding advisory panel made up of data protection commissioners from each of its 27 member countries, leads the way in cracking down on the data retention limits, calling for search engines to delete search records after six months.
Until today, the search engines came closest to this target in September, when Google reduced its data anonymization timeline from 18 months to nine months. This seemed like a monumental gesture at the time, but, oh, what a difference a few months make!
Yahoo today, Dec. 17, vowed to anonymize log data within 90 days for not only search, but also page views, page clicks, ad views and ad clicks, with certain exceptions for fraud, security and legal obligations. Yahoo's overture shaved 10 months off of its previous data erasure policy.
Microsoft, which seems painfully opposed to any sort of leadership position in search, is still stuck at 18 months. The chagrin in Redmond is palpable. To recap, Yahoo is quickest to nuke your data from its system at three months, Google at nine, Microsoft at 18.
Yahoo said in a statement:
"Yahoo conducted a comprehensive review of its data practices across the globe. The heads of business and engineering units worked with privacy and data governance teams to thoroughly review data needs for global products and services, striving to ensure that Yahoo retains data only long enough to serve our business and create the highest-quality user experiences while maintaining the ability to fight fraud, secure systems and meet legal obligations."
Yahoo decided that three months of data retention was all it needed to continue successfully offering its services. But doesn't a reduction of 10 months seem like a drastic change to anyone, particularly as these companies fought tooth and nail to keep data as long as they wanted?
How much more value can Yahoo derive from holding user data for 90 days? My suspicion is none. Why not just eliminate the storing of user data logs?
My belief is that Yahoo, Google and Microsoft can do this without seriously degrading their services, and eventually will. They just don't want to unless and until the EU, the Department of Justice or some major politicking group forces their hands.
This is quite the cat and mouse game indeed, but I wonder to what end? Google, Yahoo and Microsoft are slated to place their cases for data retention before the Article 29 Working Party panel in February. Will 2009 be the year Google, Yahoo and Microsoft cease storing our search and other user data altogether?
I put some of my questions to Google in the context of Yahoo's news today. Besides the company line about taking privacy seriously, Google Senior Privacy Counsel Jane Horvath responded:
"When we make changes to our policies, they are dependent on what will be best for our users both in terms of the services we provide and the respect of their privacy. It is a balance that we are continually evaluating."
There will be big changes afoot regarding user data retention in 2009. The Big Three of search will succumb to their clearly softening stances on retaining our data.
We will see a glut of innovation, with the companies' search algorithms giving us similar or superior results based on our searches without storing and picking over our search queries, IP addresses and cookies.
I'm certain the companies can do this already; they've either become too reliant on our data or are scared to set us free and lose competitive advantages.
What do you think?