Posted January 23, 2008 4:41 pm by with 4 comments

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Privacy watchdog groups have filed a complaint with the FTC about AskEraser, claiming that the six-week-old service doesn’t live up to its promises of erasing all user search data even when enabled.

Funny, six months ago the then-unlaunched service got Ask the highest marks in a privacy ranking. Now, less than two months in, the service is already under fire. The complaint says that Ask has marketed the AskEraser product deceptively by claiming that it would delete users’ search histories.

As MediaPost quotes the complaint,

AskEraser marketing leads the public to believe that their search histories are not being collected and retained by Not only is this not always the case, search histories are accessible, collected and retained by both third-party advertisers and third-party service providers

Okay, let’s think about this one. In the AskEraser FAQ, it does admit that it may take “a number of hours” to delete your search data—longer if they’re doing some heavy lifting behind the scenes. You know, compared to other major search engines (Google, Yahoo, MSN and AOL) that retain data for a minimum of 13 to 18 months, I gotta say that several hours—maybe a day—doesn’t really sound all that threatening. Especially when you consider that those other search engines give you absolutely no option to not have your data collected and stored.

In the AskEraser FAQ, it does explicitly state situations in which your data may be retained without your notice—for things like legal actions (which include warrants and subpoenas) and technical difficulties. Yeah, it would probably be better for Ask (not to mention its users) to disobey a warrant or subpoena. Right.

Also in the AskEraser FAQ, it does explain pretty clearly that your search queries may still be shared with (and stored by) third parties who provide ads, stock quotes and other on-SERP services and information.

Among the complaint’s weaker points (effectively taken apart by Danny Sullivan here) are that AskEraser sets a cookie, which could be tracked on other websites (and tell people what? That that person uses AskEraser. Ooh, that’s enough to steal their identity!)

Really, if someone is that concerned with their privacy that they subscribe to all of the complaint’s points, they should certainly be concerned enough to read the FAQ page before accepting the program.

Does the average AskEraser user know that their data may still be shared with Google et al.? Perhaps, perhaps not—but ignorantia non excusat. Ask has made that information public and available, and while it wasn’t fully disclosed in most of its marketing, the press release from the AskEraser release didn’t overstate its capabilities in saying “With AskEraser, people can ensure that their search history will not be retained by”

Really, though, wouldn’t we all be better served by trying to take action against the other search giants to protect our personal information? Attacking the one major search engine to actually start in the right direction seems more than just a little counterintuitive.

  • “EPIC’s weekend filing regarding AskEraser is both flawed and unfortunate. It’s unfortunate in the sense that tried to engage in a constructive dialogue with the group last week, and was rebuffed. Privacy is an issue that demands collaboration and partnership between online companies and advocates, for the benefit of all consumers.’s relationship with the Center for Democracy & Technology is proof-positive of that.

    “EPIC’s filing is flawed in the sense that the document they filed is factually inaccurate, and simply shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the functionality of our product. In addition, many of the issues they raise are outdated, while others are completely misguided from the outset, and others deal with changes that already made to AskEraser weeks ago, and were subsequently posted publicly on our website.

    “It’s a shame that the industry’s first-ever privacy tool for consumers – widely acclaimed by industry experts and users alike – would be the subject of such a meritless action. It’s a move that sends a chilling message and has an adversarial effect to companies in the online space who would like to innovate on privacy to benefit users, but who might think twice based on wrongful and intimidating steps such as those taken by EPIC.”

    – Nicholas Graham, Spokesperson,

  • Jordan McCollum

    Thanks, Nicholas!

  • Mike

    I think this goes hand and hand with the ‘Is the Internet ‘Public’?’ post. Once you step into the lobby…

  • Jordan McCollum

    Yeah, seeing multiple stories on such similar topics on the same day prompted the Public? post.