Virante, a SEO & Internet marketing company, has propsoed a new privacy standard to prevent search engines from tracking certain search queries. The standard is called #Privacy, and is pretty simple:
“Pound Privacy” is a campaign to create the first standard for search engine query privacy. The implementation is fairly straightforward: If you append the phrase “#privacy” at the end of a query on any search engine or site search, your query should not be tracked by IP or cookie, and should not be made public in keyword tools. It is that simple.
This is an interesting propsal, and a way to give search engine users much more control over the infromation search providers can collect.
But it isn’t a complete solution to the problem of search engine privacy. In the #Privacy paradigm, the collection of user information is still the default – users must take action to prevent certain searches from being collected. Further, there are no real ways to ensure that search engines actually abide by the addition of the #Privacy instruction. In fact, Virante’s proposal allows search engines to ignore the flag “when the query indicates that a crime is being committed.” Not sure what that is supposed to mean, or who gets to decide what searches fit that category.
#Privacy is an interesting idea – a good first step. But I think a better solution would be one where search engines are prevented from collecting information on their users altogether. Short of that, there should be limits on the kind of information collection, how long it can be kept, etc. Users should have the ability to see the information on file, correct errors, and delete information as they see fit.
Forcing users to append their searches with a tag in order to protect their privacy accepts the premise that search engines should be allowed to collect personal information by default. And that is what must change.
[found via Canadian Privacy Law Blog]
UPDATE: More light criticism of the # Privacy endeavor:
Seth Finkelstein notes an obvious flaw in the comments: appending such a tag to your searches merely notifies anyone watching that “This is a really interesting search! Hot stuff here!”
And Michael at Better Software… reminds us that any search engine results clicked would still, by default, send the search query to the host’s site through the HTTP “referer” header. (He also sees this entire proposal as perhaps just a means to get “a bit of nice publicity” for Virante, which is probably why I (subconsciously?) didn’t provide a link to the SEO firm in the first place).
UPDATE 2: And Emergent Chaos rightfully calls it a “silly idea.”
An obvious problem is that it also functions as a flag for “This is a really interesting search! Hot stuff here!” 1/2 🙂
Thank you for taking the time to look over #privacy. I have taken the time to look over your comments and those of a handful of other prominent bloggers who have voiced their concerns over the standard.
I have discussed them in detail on thegooglecache.com. I would be pleased if you could take a chance to look them over.
Seth, what you’re saying about #privacy being a flag for a “hot search”,
is true now, but when millions of people all around the world begin to use
the #privacy in their queries, it would become less of “a flag”.
I don’t know who wrote comment #2, there’s no name in the comment, nor
on the linked-to blog, but anyways, the #privacy inititive is a stepping stone,
and a damn good one. As #privacy popularity and usage grow the question
might become which search engine will offer the #privacy in their settings?
The real idea here, seems to me, not just to give the users something
more to type in the search box, but to apply some pressure on all the
search engine, to create competition among them to include #privacy
in their standard settings for users.
Thanks for the comments, Bompa. But rather than just offering #privacy as an option that the user must select, I still think the best solution would be either (a) give the user full access and control over the data the search engine has collected, allowing it to be edited or deleted, or (b) the search engine deletes any data collected after a certain short-term period, or ideally (c) no cookie or IP-identifiable data is collected at all.