Yahoo Adopts Stricter Privacy Guidelines

User Data Scrubbed Within Six Months

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NEW YORK ( -- Yahoo is adopting a new policy that it hopes will take the data privacy issue "off the table."

The company said Wednesday that it will start making user data anonymous within 90 days, and will destroy all personally-identifiable data within six months, with some exceptions for fraud, security or legal obligations.

Previously, Yahoo had held onto data generated by search queries for 13 months. The new policy is company-wide and includes not just search but all data generated by visitors to Yahoo sites, and services from Yahoo Mail to Yahoo Finance to Flickr -- including views and clicks on links and ads.

"In our world of customized online services, responsible use of data is critical to establishing and maintaining user trust," said Anne Toth, Yahoo's VP-policy and head of privacy. "We wanted to create a policy that takes the data privacy issue off the table."

Targeted by House
The privacy policies of ISPs, portals and search engines have become the target of a growing number of privacy groups and were the subject of House inquiry earlier this year. The House Energy and Commerce Telecommunications Subcommittee sent letters to the top 32 ISPs and portals asking for their policies on tracking users and whether they allow them to easily "opt out" of being tracked.

In response to regulator interest in the U.S. and Europe, in September Google announced it would make its data anonymous after nine months; its previous policy had been to hold on to data for 18 months. Earlier this year, introduced a feature to capitalize on the public's unease over privacy called "AskEraser," which deletes search queries from Ask's servers.

The data generated by search engines and portals is, of course, of great interest to marketers, a case argued by the Interactive Advertising Bureau. "We feel there are strong safeguards around the collection and use of data online for advertising purposes," said IAB VP-Public Policy Mike Zaneis. "What we're seeing are a number of companies using privacy as a tool for market competition."

Yahoo said that the change in policy wouldn't adversely affect any of the customized services it has built, or hinder its ability to target advertising on user behavior, a key initiative for the portals and ad networks.

More regulation under Obama?
The Bush Administration took a hands-off approach to regulating online data collection, but privacy groups see an opportunity for more government intervention when President-elect Barack Obama takes office in January.

On Tuesday several groups, including the Center for Digital Democracy, the ACLU, Consumer Federation of America, Electronic Frontier Foundation, and World Privacy Forum met with members of Obama's transition team to urge that the Federal Trade Commission take a more active role in policing the use of online data for marketing and advertising.

Yahoo is making a calculated decision that the value of that data drops off significantly enough after 90 days that it no longer makes sense to retain it and risk the public backlash.

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