When we talk about search engine privacy concerns, we think of user data that is collected by search engines, but we don't know for what purposes and to whom it goes. Privacy concerns can come in the form of user profiling and personalization to ensure more targeted advertising or improved search quality.
The collection of personally identifiable information from users by search engines is known as "tracking," which is controversial because search engines often claim to collect a user's information to provide a better search experience and potentially better results. However, search engines can also abuse and compromise the privacy of their users by selling their data to advertisers for profit.
As the internet and search engines are relatively recent creations, a robust legal framework for the protection of privacy in relation to search engines has not yet been put in place. However, academics write about the impact of existing privacy laws in general to keep search engine users informed.
Because this is an evolving area of law, there have been several lawsuits regarding the privacy that search engines are supposed to provide to their users. The Confidentiality Act, a general law that protects information disclosed by a party who has trust and expects privacy from the party with whom they share the information, is a general practice that can be cited many times here.
If the content of search queries and the logs in which they are stored are treated in the same way as information given to a doctor because they are similarly confidential, they should be afforded the same level of privacy.
However, each user must decide individually what is more important – relevance and speed of the results or data protection – and choose a search engine accordingly.
Sure, search engines generally publish privacy policies to let users know what data can be collected from them and for what purposes, but who is really reading them?
Although these guidelines may be an attempt by search engines to provide transparency, many people never read them and are therefore unaware of how much of their private information, such as passwords and saved files, can be collected by cookies and logged and stored by the search engine. Also, these policies are often very difficult to understand, even in the unlikely event that a user decides to read them.
Privacy conscious search engines like DuckDuckGo state in their privacy policies that they collect much less data than, e.g., Google, which receives billions upon billions of searches every month and all search terms along with the date and time of the search, browser and operating system, IP address of the user, the Google cookie and the URL that displays the search are logged in a database.
Nevertheless, Google with its widely used Chrome browser is clearly the world's most popular search engine.
The company constantly emphasizes that it works hard to protect its users' privacy, while at the same time it has built its business on the idea of tracking what users are doing online to show them personalized advertisements based on their interests and activities.
This makes the situation that Google is currently in even more difficult after the company announced that it would postpone the blocking of third-party cookies in Chrome until 2024.
Both Safari and Firefox already block third-party cookies, and both protect against device fingerprinting, which uses other types of data such as browser, screen resolution, IP address and browser extensions to track them.
Google, on the other hand, has been promising to do the same for more than two years. But just last week, the search giant announced that it was expanding testing for its web privacy sandbox. The reason is probably that Google cannot simply block cookies without having a solution for how to replace them, since tracking is the lifeblood of the digital advertising industry after all.
So far, Google hasn't come up with a replacement that balances privacy and advertising: First there was Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC), but it was rejected by both digital advertisers and privacy advocates, followed by Topics, which at least doesn't allow advertisers to use it to learn about the individual users they are targeting; and with the recent delay, Google has made it clear that it still has its hands full.
By Daniela La Marca