October 2, 2002 11:24 AM PDT

Search firm caves in to privacy pressure

Fast Search and Transfer's AlltheWeb.com bowed to pressure from a consumer advocate this week by adding a first-ever privacy policy disclosing its data-sharing practices.

The Internet search provider, based in Oslo, Norway, responded to a complaint filed with the Norwegian government in late September by Public Information Research (PIR), a consumer advocacy group. The complaint charged AlltheWeb with failing to notify visitors that it uses tiny electronic tags to monitor search queries and share the data with third parties, in violation of Norwegian laws.

AlltheWeb posted a privacy policy, dated Tuesday, that outlines advertising partnerships with online portal Lycos and advertising company DoubleClick and describes their use of technology to track search queries.

With the move, AlltheWeb joins a slew of U.S. Internet companies that have begun to notify consumers about electronic tracking in detailed privacy policies, but only after feeling heat from privacy watchdogs. Two years ago, DoubleClick itself sat at the center of a privacy storm over digital tracking which involved a federal investigation that has since been resolved.

At the core of many online privacy concerns is the fear that companies can link surfing behavior with personally identifiable information such as names and addresses. The complaint filed against AlltheWeb charged that the search queries of visitors could ultimately be linked with cookies set by DoubleClick, which could contain more personal information such as location data.

Still, AlltheWeb's privacy policy says that the company does not link personally identifiable information about visitors to their search habits. Instead, it says, tracking technology is used to determine the popularity of search terms, count the number of pages visited on Lycos, or determine the effectiveness of advertising. The company also lets visitors know that they can turn off or block the use of cookies in their browser to avoid tracking.

Fast Search and Transfer licenses its search technology to Lycos, and because of their relationship, much of the privacy policy refers to Lycos' monitoring practices and refers visitors to the online portal's notice.

"In addition to the personally identifiable information that Lycos actively collects when you register, we also collect anonymous information passively using cookies and Web beacons," reads the policy.

PIR's Daniel Brandt, who filed the complaint, said that the privacy policy was a big improvement over none at all. But he still called out problems; for example, data on a visitor's Internet Protocol address could be sent to DoubleClick if cookies are disabled. The clear gif, located at the bottom of each search results page on AlltheWeb, sends data on the search terms entered by users and their IP (Internet Protocol) numbers, IDs that can be increasingly associated with individuals, he said.

"The only way to disable this Web bug is to use a browser that allows you to block third-party images. There aren't many browsers that can do this, and setting this option can hamper surfing," he said. "Still, this is a big improvement over no privacy policy at all, because it at least acknowledges that there are possible issues, even though it dismisses them too quickly."

 

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