Until recently, most of the major Internet search engines kept detailed and potentially personally identifiable records of their customers' searches indefinitely, raising concerns from privacy advocates and constant pressure from U.S. and European regulators.

Things are looking up for search engine users, however, as large internet search companies are aggressively competing with each other to offer better privacy protection to users, according to a report published today by the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT).

"We see a stepped-up commitment to privacy from the companies, and we believe they are starting to see privacy as a market differentiator, and that, in fact, is starting to spark some competition about privacy," CDT chief executive Leslie Harris told reporters at a morning briefing in Washington.
The report assessed the privacy policies of the five major Internet search companies, and while it acknowledged that there are legitimate reasons for companies to retain some search records for a limited time, it also called for search companies to balance their advertising needs with user privacy.

The report praises many of the recent search policy changes from major players in the market. Google and Microsoft, for example, plan to keep search data 18 months before deleting it, while Yahoo plans to hold such data for 13 months. Moreover, Ask.com's new AskEraser tool will offer a level of control that the others do not, giving users the option of having search data deleted after a few hours. The report notes that while this industry self-regulation is very important, some baseline privacy legislation is still needed to provide minimum standards to protect users.