Microsoft this week said that it will work harder to protect the privacy of users of its Web search service and called on the wider industry to take similar measures. The software giant is working with another search provider, Ask.com, to promote global privacy principles for data collection, use and protection online. The announcement comes just days after Privacy International labeled industry leader Google as "hostile to privacy."

"As search and other online services progress, it's important for our customers to be able to trust that their information is being used appropriately and in a way that provides value to them," says Microsoft chief privacy strategist Peter Cullen. "We hope others in the industry will join us in developing and supporting principles that address these important issues. People should be able to search and surf online without having to navigate a complicated patchwork of privacy policies."

Last week, Google announced that it would begin expiring cookies after two years and make user data anonymous after 18 months in response to complaints and concerns from users. These moves, however, were not enough to quell the fears of privacy advocates who worry that Google's near-dominance of the online world places it in a unique position. Microsoft and Ask.com stand to benefit from any bad press Google receives, and the two companies are taking advantage of recent trends to begin a drive toward a less user-hostile Web.

That said, Microsoft's changes sound an awful lot like what Google already announced. The company will make all Web search data via Live Search anonymous after 18 months, just like Google. But Microsoft is also taking the additional step of storing customer data separately from any personal information, to ensure that no unauthorized connection between the two can be made. And of course, Microsoft and Ask.com are asking for industry participation in a plan to make such changes the standard. The goal is to provide a high degree of personalization online without sacrificing privacy, Microsoft says.