Microsoft is on the defensive over its decision to hand over search data to the US government, saying the company would never compromise the privacy of its customers.

On the company's MSN Search weblog, Ken Moss, general manager of MSN Web Search, said Microsoft did not divulge any personal user information when it provided the US DoJ (Department of Justice) with data from its search service.

Moss said the privacy of Microsoft customers is "non-negotiable" and the company aims to continue to protect customer data and information. The company thought it best to co-operate with the government's subpoena, handed down about six months ago, but did so in a way that would not violate customers' privacy.

"At MSN Search, we have strict guidelines in place to protect the privacy of our customers' data, and I think you’ll agree that privacy was fully protected," Moss said. "We tried to strike the right balance in a very sensitive matter."

Microsoft and rival search engine providers Yahoo and AOL have come under heavy fire from internet users and privacy advocates for complying with a US government subpoena of their internet search records. The DoJ said it needs the information to defend Copa, the Child Online Protection Act, which it is trying to revive after it was struck down by the US Supreme Court two years ago.

Specifically, Moss said Microsoft provided data that allows the DoJ to see how frequently some query terms occurred, but does not allow the government to look up an IP address to see what information was queried and cannot look for users who searched for certain terms.

"We produced a random sample of pages from our index and some aggregated query logs that listed queries and how often they occurred," Moss wrote in the blog on Friday. "Absolutely no personal data was involved."

Search engine leader Google has so far refused to hand over search information to the DoJ, citing several reasons, including concerns about violating its users' privacy, disclosing trade secrets and facing an undue burden in assembling the demanded information.

Poll results published yesterday by the Ponemon Institute found that the majority of internet users are on Google's side, and a good number would stop using the company's search engine if it complied with the government.

More than 56 percent of respondents to a poll of 1,017 adult US residents believe Google should not hand over information about search queries to the government, according to the institute, which conducts research on corporate governance, data protection and privacy compliance.

About 41 percent of those who said Google should not provide the data to the DoJ said they would stop using Google's search engine if the company complied, while 18 percent said they were not sure what they would do in that case.

Requests for an interview with Moss or other MSN representatives through Microsoft's PR firm yesterday were denied. Beyond Moss's blog entry, the only information Microsoft provided on the matter was a written statement submitted by email through a PR representative.

"We take the privacy of our customers very seriously," the statement read. "We did comply with [the government's] request for data in regards to helping protect children in a way that ensured we also protected the privacy of our customers."

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