REDMOND, Washington: Growing concern about consumer information held by online search engines has prompted Microsoft Corporation to call for a comprehensive global approach to privacy.

Says chief privacy officer Peter Cullen: "We think it's time for an industry-wide dialogue. The current patchwork of protections and how companies explain them is really confusing to consumers."

For its part the software titan is to make all web search data anonymous after eighteen months on its Live Search service, unless it receives user consent to store it longer.

It also plans to store customer search data separately from data linked to people, email addresses or phone numbers; and to prevent unauthorized correlation of these types of data.

Microsoft has been joined by IAC/InterActive Corp's in its effort toward a unified privacy approach online search business.

The duo hope to encourage a number of companies and advocacy groups to establish common practices about how and for what period search engines store personal data they gather from their users.

Their consumer concerns are not, however, entirely altruistic. Both Microsoft and Ask are playing catch-up to Google and Yahoo in online search.

By lobbying for defined standards on privacy, Microsoft could indirectly limit Google's ability to use its stored information to improve its services. The latter had 49.5% of the US search market in June, according to researcher comScore Inc.

Google has recently pledged to cut from 24 to 18 months the period in which it retains personally identifiable search data.

Its conciliatory stance could be linked to the scrutiny its faces from the US Federal Trade Commission and the European Commission which are probing its recent $3.1 billion (€2.24bn; £1.51bn) acquisition of ad serving company DoubleClick.

Data sourced from Wall Street Journal Online; additional content by WARC staff