Good Microsoft versus Bad Microsoft on privacy

Good Microsoft versus Bad Microsoft on privacy

Summary: More than two years ago, two rival divisions within Microsoft slugged it out over an innovative feature in IE8. The IE development team, representing Good Microsoft, had written an awesome privacy protection platform. The online advertising division, representing Bad Microsoft, objected. Guess who won?

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It's time for another round of Good Microsoft, Bad Microsoft. I first wrote about this phenomenon back in April 2008:

On paper and in theory, Microsoft is a single corporation, with something like 80,000 employees worldwide. In the real world, it’s actually a collection of dozens, maybe even hundreds, of small companies that appear to act without a lot of central supervision.

That is the only possible explanation for how the same company could do something totally amazing on the same day that it makes headlines with a ridiculously boneheaded move.

Ironically, today's example involves a decision that was made around the same time I wrote that post, while Internet Explorer 8 was under development. In a well-researched story today, the Wall Street Journal reported that Microsoft's advertising division had beaten the Internet Explorer team in an internal battle over the deployment of a genuinely innovative privacy feature in IE8, called In-Private Filtering:

In early 2008, Microsoft Corp.'s product planners for the Internet Explorer 8.0 browser intended to give users a simple, effective way to avoid being tracked online. They wanted to design the software to automatically thwart common tracking tools, unless a user deliberately switched to settings affording less privacy.

That triggered heated debate inside Microsoft. As the leading maker of Web browsers, the gateway software to the Internet, Microsoft must balance conflicting interests: helping people surf the Web with its browser to keep their mouse clicks private, and helping advertisers who want to see those clicks.

In the end, the product planners lost a key part of the debate. The winners: executives who argued that giving automatic privacy to consumers would make it tougher for Microsoft to profit from selling online ads. Microsoft built its browser so that users must deliberately turn on privacy settings every time they start up the software.

I remember this feature very well. During demos and interviews throughout the IE8 development process, I recall asking more than once why this amazingly useful feature was so hard to enable. The answers never made sense. A year later, when my co-authors and I were planning our coverage of Internet Explorer 8 for Windows 7 Inside Out, we spent a day or two dissecting its inner workings and agreed that this feature as implemented was nearly useless. (We made sure to document the registry tweak that turns it on, knowing that maybe one in 10,000 Windows users would go to the trouble of actually using it.)

[Update: Several commenters have confused this feature with In Private Browsing. They are not the same thing.]

The depressing part of this story, in my mind, is that the software development team was absolutely in touch with what Internet users want and need. Microsoft had a chance to show genuine leadership when it comes to Internet privacy. The team that wrote the software actually designed and built a feature that could have served as a model for the rest of the industry. That was Good Microsoft at work. But Bad Microsoft nullified all that work with a decision that was not only contrary to its customers' best wishes but also guaranteed to result in a major hit to its reputation when it became public, as it inevitably did.

In this case, Bad Microsoft actually has a face and a name. According to the Journal, senior vice president Brian McAndrews was the one who complained and successfully lobbied to have the feature neutered. (He's former chief executive of web-ad firm aQuantive, which became Microsoft Advertising after it was acquired in 2007.)

Mr. McAndrews has left the company, according to the Journal. Unfortunately, the decision he argued for is still in place. Microsoft owes several hundred million IE users an apology, and I'd love to see this feature fully enabled in IE9. But I won't be holding my breath.

Topics: Legal, Browser, CXO, Microsoft, Software, IT Employment

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60 comments
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  • Blunder after error after misstep after boneheaded flub after...

    God, the list of Microsoft's stupidities is endless.

    When you look at the add-ons for Firefox, there are plenty for security and privacy. When you go to www.ieaddons.com, on the other hand, "security" and "privacy" are NOT EVEN AVAILABLE CATEGORIES you can choose from.

    The only public apology worth anything is to release IE9 with these privacy features enabled by default.
    JohnMorgan3
    • RE: Good Microsoft versus Bad Microsoft on privacy

      @JFDude - There's a HUGE difference between users having the choice to manually download a tool to do <blah> and the (then) dominant browser vendor preventing competitors from being able to do <blah>.

      Whilst in this case, I completely agree that most users would have been well served, what do you think the courts would have said if MS was to have prevented Google's tracking capability? It would AT LEAST have been seen as anti-competitive.
      de-void-21165590650301806002836337787023
      • Simple

        @de-void
        [i]What do you think the courts would have said if MS was to have prevented Google's tracking capability?[/i]

        That's a chance they should have taken. It would have amounted to a win-win situation in any case, presupposing it went there. And everyone likes to win.
        klumper
      • You miss the point

        @de-void The feature exists. The change that was made was to make it difficult for all but the most technical users to enable this feature. It doesn't have to be on by default, but the user should have the option to easily enable it.
        Ed Bott
      • RE: Good Microsoft versus Bad Microsoft on privacy

        @de-void

        not if it blocked their own tracking tools too
        erik.soderquist
    • RE: Good Microsoft versus Bad Microsoft on privacy

      @JFDude
      That is because all Firefox security comes from add-ons. The add-ons all comes from different providers. You know, like the ones that phone home, great feature in a security product.
      mswift@...
      • RE: Good Microsoft versus Bad Microsoft on privacy

        @mswift@...
        Any proof these add-ons "phone home"?<br><br>Or are you just disgusted that Ed just crapped on IE8.
        LTV10
    • RE: Good Microsoft versus Bad Microsoft on privacy

      @JFDude Nah. the only public apology worth anything would be to release it as a patch in the next service pack series for all versions.
      zclayton2
      • RE: Good Microsoft versus Bad Microsoft on privacy

        [i]the only public apology worth anything would be to release it as a patch in the next service pack series for all versions.[/i]<br><br>@zclayton2
        They'll never do that. In fact, there are those out there that wish IE8 had the ads permanently baked into the browser.<br><br>Obnoxious greed rules the day.
        LTV10
  • It's very clear

    MSFT decisions get made by bean-counters and not by the engineers who seem to have common sense. It's a FUBAR situation with no resolution.
    MSFTWorshipper
    • RE: Good Microsoft versus Bad Microsoft on privacy

      @MSFTWorshipper - It's been that way at Microsoft and many other companies for a long time. As long as a company is publicly traded with stockholders, profit will *always* take precedence over what's truly right for the customer because the stockholders will always demand their "due".

      And no, I'm no longer a Microsoft stock holder, haven't been for a while because they've lost sight of what's right for the customer/user.
      PollyProteus
      • RE: Good Microsoft versus Bad Microsoft on privacy

        @PollyProteus But how odes it benefit them if I don't use their product at all. We have all but banned IE here (we only use it on the rare occasion that one of our clients has a site setup that only works on IE)
        cmwade1977
      • But that's true of ALL companies...

        @PollyProteus
        Look at the iphone 4 debacle. It's cheaper to issue a free rubber baby buggy bumper than to do a total recall and fix the antenna problem once and for all. Apple isn't any different.

        All companies pretty much will do the same sort of thing - whatever it takes to stay out of the red.
        Wolfie2K3
    • RE: Good Microsoft versus Bad Microsoft on privacy

      @MSFTWorshipper MSFT was, is, and always will be, a marketing company. Marketing (and its sister sales), will always win out over technology. MSFT is NOT a technology company. Only blind idiots think otherwise.
      dabble53
    • And it comes back to bite them in the a$$.

      @MSFTWorshipper

      Thinking back to the early decision to support obsolete DOS-Windows APIs in win32. It cost Microsoft dearly in development and support costs over a decade later.
      Lester Young
  • Companies have to balance their customers' ...

    ... as well as their own self-interests. I think it is awkward to have one part of a company undermine another. The feature sounds neat, but I don't think it is worth millions of dollars of lost revenue to MS. The way the feature as implemented is at best an annoyance to users. If the feature resulted in critical problems, that would be another story.
    P. Douglas
    • RE: Good Microsoft versus Bad Microsoft on privacy

      @P. Douglas And lost market share on the browser because security sucks isn't part of the lost revenue picture? (Written from my firefox browser.)
      zclayton2
      • No impact there..

        @zclayton2
        If the browser is free and the replacement is free - then how can it impact revenue...? They already have the money you paid for the OS. There is no financial loss beyond that. It may result in someone's wounded pride - but that's about as far as it goes.
        Wolfie2K3
      • No impact there?

        @Wolfie2k3<br>If that were true, if there were no financial impact, then why was this feature disabled? Why would they fear the user having the option to turn it off?<br><br>Unless... ;)
        LTV10
  • Good for you Ed

    To call out the bad with the good. This is but one more example of why reporters must strive to be as impartial as possible, while being advocates for consumers (who after all, pay for all this largesse) in getting things right! That becomes the point at which they are ultimately taken seriously [see Paul Thurrott for more].

    It's also what Microsoft - and their industry kin - are all too often NOT about. Mistakes are mistakes, just learn to fess up big boys! Your halos won't diminish, since they don't exist except in your fanciful imaginations.

    [b]RECENT HEADLINE TECH NEWS [/b]

    - [b]Microsoft[/b] nixes much needed browser privacy filter after weighing consumer interests over advertising revenue. Guess who WINS? Client base crows [i]What's new?[/i]

    - [b]Apple[/b] pulls off Antennagate whopper, as they huff and puff their iPhone walls down. Jobs later caves after tail-chasing himself back to his senses. Some cite exhaustion, along with shortage of bumpers and mudguards.

    - [b]"Do No Evil" Google[/b] says "We're sorry" :( after being called to task for invading the privacy of unsuspecting parties via signal-pimping streetcars, possibly to include unsecured lawmakers' crypts. Ouch.

    - [b]"Do No Evil" Google[/b] crawls back on all fours to re-curry favor with Marxist China, after sticking their overly righteous (and ultimately hypocritical) foot in their mouth. Rumor has it Google's abandoned streetcar vans have been converted into Chinese scrap metal as part of the bargain. w00t

    More to come ... rest assured. ;)
    klumper