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Microsoft's web privacy push: 'We're the anti-Google'

Responsible by name, unprofitable by nature

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Signs are emerging that Microsoft has realized it can exploit concerns over what Google does with information involving where you've surfed and what you've searched for.

Microsoft has apparently pledged that it won't index users' information in its web-based email service, Hotmail, to serve tailored ads - unlike Google with Gmail.

Platform strategy senior director Tim O'Brien said that while Microsoft will collect information on Hotmail users' gender, age, and their - ahem - "preferences", it won't then use that data to serve up ads directly traceable to a particular user. You'll just keep getting random banners to check your credit-card rating or to refinance your home, apparently.

"This is enshrined in policy across all our online services," InfoWorld reported O'Brien saying at SaaSCon 2010 in Santa Clara, California.

O'Brien was echoing comments made by Microsoft's chief executive Steve Ballmer in October 2007 on how Google trawls Gmail users' messages to match them with suitable ads. Ballmer said that unlike Google, Microsoft does not crawl through users' email. Microsoft's CEO had claimed Microsoft produced little ad revenue from Hotmail, a problem shared by Google with Gmail.

"Google's had the same experience - even though they read your mail and we don't," the bullet-headed chief executive said. "That's just a factual statement, not even meant to be pejorative."

That's not to say Microsoft wouldn't be indexing its web mail users' emails had it been sharper than the search giant it let get away.

Also, the stance seems to be completely against the interest of the kinds of advertisers it wants to attract to its online services and ad-supported versions of its applications like Office. Advertisers don't want random banner ads on refinancing. They want their ads served as precisely and as clickably as possible.

While O'Brien's words are not new, the timing is interesting and suggests Microsoft believes it can exploit the sensitive subject of netizens' privacy - a matter Google has misread. Whether a coordinated campaign emerges claiming Microsoft is more responsible than Google on privacy or this is corporate Tourette's syndrome remains to be seen.

Microsoft last week poked at Google's Chrome for compromising users' privacy with a combined search and address bar called Omni Box that gathers data on the domains a user is typing. Microsoft said in a video posted on its TechNet that Internet Explorer does not send users' data to its maker's servers.

Google uses the information gathered by Omni Box to suggest URLs and - classic Google - search terms. Not only does this mean Google is gathering more information on the habits of users, but also that Google can suggest sites and push you towards ads that make it money.

Google has said it only stores a random two per cent of data keyed into OmniBox and that data is anonymized after 24 hours.

Bizarrely, rather than exploit this potential issue further to the benefit of IE, Microsoft quickly pulled the video from its TechNet site. The company offered no explanation for the video or its removal. ®

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