The election season may be in full swing, and the buzz about the recent Superbowl at full throttle, but heated debates and bravado are not just limited these days to politicians and athletes. Recently, search engine vendor Ask.com and its supporters have come out swinging against several privacy groups over a complaint they recently filed that requested the Feds to forcibly pull the plug on a new feature called AskEraser. As Nicholas Graham, a spokesman for Ask.com stated: [The complaint] merits a 15-yard penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct.
The complaint was filed on January 19th by a consumer privacy coalition, which included the Electronic Privacy Information Center and Consumer Action. The coalition alleged that Ask.com collected user information and retained user data in contrast to the representations it made about its AskEraser Service. Such misrepresentations, the coalition contended, violated Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act, 15 U.S.C. 45(a), in that it was an unfair and deceptive trade practice.
Immediately thereafter, the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT), a Washington-based think thank, voiced its support for Ask.com by sending a letter to the Federal Trade Commission urging it to dismiss the complaint as "unfounded." In the letter, CDT defended Ask.com, stating that it "had proactively addressed or is in the process of addressing the concerns previously raised by the petitioners that are within [its] control. "
At time of launch, AskEraser aspired to let users ask for their search activity data not to be retained on the company’s servors. Ask.com claimed that when enabled by a user, AskEraser would completely erase search activity data from the system, including IP addresses, user IDs, session IDs and the text of all queries.
But the coalition claims that Ask.com's proclaimed aspiration and implementation were deceptive. It claimed that while Ask.com portrayed itself to be "serious about privacy" and "committed to meeting and exceeding emerging privacy trends," it failed to prevent or regulate the collection and use of user Ask.com searches by third-party advertising companies. The only way for a user to prevent such collection would be to visit each third-party site and disable cookies on those individual Websites. On a related vein, in order to enable AskEraser, users first needed to accept an opt-out cookie, which, in itself, was a persistent unique identifier. Plus, the coalition argued, Ask.com reserves the right to retain user search data in case of a court order without informing users.Those opposing the complaint claim that the coalition is being overzealous. While not perfect, the AskEraser service was an effort worth applauding, they claim. Graham said that the complainants and Ask.com had been in a "constructive dialogue," and that the allegations were based on outdated information. For instance, the lifetime of the opt-out cookie has been changed to 30 years, a change that has been publicly posted on the search engine' website. Concsequently, there is no way for Ask.com to uniquely identify anyone, Graham contends.
The debate, for now, will continue in court . . .