Microsoft said on Sunday the software maker was taking new steps to protect consumer privacy in the areas of Web search and online advertising and called on the Internet industry to support it.
Microsoft said it was responding to public concern over the recent consolidation of the online ad industry as well as stepped-up interest from government regulators in its call for a comprehensive rather than piecemeal approach to privacy.
"We think it's time for an industrywide dialogue," Peter Cullen, Microsoft's chief privacy officer, said in an interview. "The current patchwork of protections and how companies explain them is really confusing to consumers."
Specifically, Microsoft said it would make all Web search query data anonymous after 18 months on its "Live Search" service, unless it receives user consent to store it longer. The policy changes are retroactive and worldwide, it said.
Microsoft plans to store customer search data separately from data tied to people, e-mail addresses or phone numbers and take steps to assure no unauthorized correlation of these types of data can be made. It also will permanently remove "cookie" user identification data, Web address or other identifiers.
As part of Microsoft's push, Ask.com has agreed to join Microsoft in calling for the industry to adopt a common set of privacy practices for data collection, commercial use and consumer protection in search and online advertising. Last week, it unveiled AskEraser, a service that will allow Ask customers to change their privacy preferences at any time.
Microsoft's initiatives follow recent moves by Google, the dominant provider of Web searches and the company most under fire by privacy advocates concerned at how rapid advances in search technology may pose unprecedented threats to consumer privacy.
Google set in motion industry efforts to limit how long Web search data is stored by being first to say it will in the future cleanse personal information from its databases after 18 months. Microsoft is one-upping Google by making its move retroactive.
Google has stepped up its own efforts to reach compromises with European Union and U.S. policy-makers in recent months.
Both Google and Microsoft face scrutiny from U.S. and European regulators over their plans to merge with major players in the online advertising industry.
Google is seeking approval to buy advertising services firm DoubleClick for $3.1 billion, a move analysts say will more than double the number of Web users to whom it serves up online ads. Similarly, Microsoft plans to buy diversified ad services company aQuantive, a DoubleClick rival, for $6 billion. A shareholder meeting to approve the deal is set for August.