SAN FRANCISCO - Hoping to establish itself as the Internet's least intrusive search engine, Ask.com is empowering people to prevent their search requests from being deposited in data banks.
The new privacy control, called "AskEraser," is scheduled to be unveiled today. When it's turned on, the safeguard purges a user's search requests from Ask.com's computers within a few hours.
The feature follows through on a pledge that Oakland-based Ask.com made five months ago as it tried to seize the high ground in an escalating debate about how long search engines and other websites should hold on to personal information about their users.
"We definitely want to stand out from the other guys," said Doug Leeds, Ask.com's senior vice president of product management. "This level of control is unprecedented and unmatched."
Because Ask.com relies on Google to deliver many of the text-based advertising links on its pages, Leeds said some information about search requests and clicks will still end up on Google's computers even when AskEraser is turned on.
With a 3 percent market share, Ask.com is currently the fifth-largest US search engine, based on October traffic tracked by the research firm Nielsen Online. Google was by far the largest with a 55 percent share, followed by Yahoo with19 percent, Microsoft with 14 percent, and AOL with 4 percent.
Among other things, details about search requests help customize online ads aimed at each user's perceived interests - a practice that's drawing more attention from regulators, lawmakers, and privacy rights watchdogs.
Search engines insist they vigilantly guard all personal details about their users, but critics worry the stored information could come back to haunt people if the data is subpoenaed in a legal investigation or stolen by hackers.