FTC Asked Again To Investigate Ask.com's AskEraser

A leading privacy group late last week pressed forward with its complaint about Ask.com's controversial new tool aimed at protecting the privacy of search queries, despite opposition from another prominent digital rights group that supports Ask.com's efforts.

In a supplemental Federal Trade Commission complaint filed Friday, the Electronic Privacy Information Center again asked the agency to investigate Ask.com's AskEraser and order the company to stop offering the tool, saying it promises more privacy than it delivers. And highlighting the split AskEraser has caused among advocates, EPIC also asked the FTC to discount the arguments of the Center for Democracy & Technology, which argued that the original January complaint should be dismissed.

"AskEraser's opt-out cookie poses an ongoing threat to consumer privacy, and is an unfair business practice as it induces consumers to disable genuine privacy techniques," EPIC stated in its supplemental papers.

Ask spokesperson Nicholas Graham said Friday's filing by EPIC is "as misguided and meritless as their document from January."

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"Our product and disclosures are as accurate and straightforward now as they were three weeks ago, or two months ago--when we launched AskEraser," Graham said.

EPIC and a coalition of other privacy groups initially filed a complaint last month, listing a host of purported deficiencies with Ask's new AskEraser tool, which touts itself as allowing Web users to delete records of their searches almost immediately. Google, Microsoft and Yahoo, by contrast, retain records of users' search queries for between 13 and 18 months.

After EPIC filed its original complaint last month, Ask.com said the company had already made--or was in the process of making--tweaks addressing some of the issues that EPIC raised.

But EPIC is still concerned about AskEraser's limitations. One of the most significant is that Ask.com shares some search query data with Google, which retains that information for 18 months. Another is that Ask.com will store or share information with law enforcement authorities without notifying users who believe their searches are deleted.

The CDT and other privacy advocates often find themselves allied when it comes to online advertising techniques, but in this situation the CDT thought Ask.com should be encouraged for its willingness to innovate. In a Jan. 23 letter to the FTC, the CDT argued that companies like Ask.com "should be applauded for their vision, not condemned for their efforts."

As for sharing information with law enforcement, the CDT argued that "is not unique to AskEraser."

"We reject the idea that technology products or policies that give users greater control cannot be considered privacy-enhancing simply because they follow the law," the CDT wrote.

Ask.com has not filed a response with the FTC.

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