SAN FRANCISCO — With U.S. and European regulators and watchdogs worried that Internet companies are compromising users' privacy by keeping data about online behavior for long periods, Yahoo Inc. said Wednesday that it would shorten that time from 13 months to 90 days.
The retention policy is the shortest among major U.S. search engines and could pressure rivals Google Inc. and Microsoft Corp. to reduce the time they keep information about their users. In September, Google began to remove portions of personally identifiable information after nine months. Microsoft, which keeps such data 18 months, said last week it would support an industry standard of six months.
Anne Toth, Yahoo's vice president for policy and privacy chief, said the new policy set Yahoo apart from its competitors and would build trust with users. She said Yahoo spent more than a year reviewing and refining its practices.
Kevin Bankston, senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said, "It's always good when search companies start competing to provide more privacy for their users."
That competition is a direct result of growing pressure from European officials to better protect users' privacy. They have urged search engines to expunge personal data after six months.
Congress has also been investigating how technology companies track their users and their personal information. Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), chairman of the House energy and commerce subcommittee on telecommunications and the Internet, praised Yahoo's new policy. "I urge other leading online companies to match or beat the commitments announced by Yahoo," he said in a statement.
Search engines have resisted shortening the time they keep personal information because they use it to better match advertisements to searches and improve the relevance of their results. Microsoft, a search laggard, has argued for all search engines to play by the same rules to create a level playing field.
Under its new policy, Yahoo plans to delete the last digits of users' numeric Internet Protocol (IP) addresses from its search archives and alter small tracking files called cookies, both within three months in most cases.
Brendon Lynch, director of privacy strategy at Microsoft, said all search engines should adopt the software giant's practice of deleting the entire Internet address and all cookies. "We believe there needs to be adoption across the industry both in time frame and method," Lynch said.
Ask.com, owned by IAC/InterActiveCorp., a year ago began offering customers the ability to "opt out" of having their information stored for more than a few hours with a product called AskEraser. Yahoo does not plan to offer such an option, Toth said.
Stronger privacy protections have not prompted many consumers to switch search engines. But privacy watchdog Jeffrey Chester said Yahoo's new policy was a gambit as it battled Google and struggled to regain its footing after bungling takeover talks with Microsoft and being unable to seal an advertising partnership with Google.
"A better approach to consumer privacy is one of the few possible competitive advantages Yahoo can embrace as it tries to survive as an independent company," Chester said. "Like Microsoft, Yahoo wants privacy to set them off from Google."
Google declined to comment. It released a statement saying it was committed to striking the "appropriate balance protecting our users' privacy and offering them benefits of data retention."
Yahoo will begin implementing its new policy next month and gradually include all of the company's services by mid-2010.