Is Microsoft finally ready to get serious about online privacy?

Is Microsoft finally ready to get serious about online privacy?

Summary: With Internet Explorer 10, Microsoft is turning the Do Not Track option on. Some see it as an attack on the online advertising industry, especially Google. But in reality it's just the latest in a consistent series of moves that respect online privacy.

TOPICS: Microsoft

It is tempting to look for short-term motives for every action by a big technology company. Case in point: with the debut of the Windows 8 Release Preview last week, Microsoft enabled the “Do Not Track” setting in Internet Explorer 10.

Here's what the setting looks like on a brand-new Windows 8 Release Preview system I just set up:

That’s a first for any browser on any platform, and arguably a provocative move. My colleague Andrew Nusca views it as a message to the ad industry: Microsoft to advertisers: Drop dead.

Jake Ludington, who’s been working in online marketing for as long as I can remember, sees the move as an attack on Google:

Microsoft seems to be declaring war on two of Google’s business units by enabling the Do Not Track (DNT) feature in Internet Explorer 10 by default.

The reality is that Microsoft’s concern over online privacy goes back many years, and this move is just the latest in a consistent chain of events going back several years.

Microsoft designed extensive privacy controls into Internet Explorer more than four years ago, and the developers who built IE8 wanted to turn those privacy settings on by default. But the browser team lost an internal struggle within Microsoft. The Wall Street Journal reported the story two years later:

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. [emphasis added]

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.

In 2011, with IE9, Microsoft upped the ante, introducing a feature called Tracking Protection. When I first saw it it in action, I noted its disruptive potential:

The more closely I look at the new Tracking Protection feature in Internet Explorer 9, the more astonished I am that it came from one of the world’s largest corporations.

If Internet Explorer 9 becomes widely adopted and if Tracking Protection is widely used—and those are two tricky assumptions—it has the potential to seriously disrupt the online advertising business.

Do Not Track and Tracking Protection attack the problems of privacy from opposite direction. Do Not Track sends a signal to web sites and advertisers telling them that the user making the request doesn’t want to be tracked. It’s up to the web site owner to voluntarily comply with that request.

Tracking Protection works from the client side, blocking third-party cookies used by ad networks and analytics firms. The feature doesn’t rely on voluntary compliance by advertisers; instead, Internet Explorer simply refuses to make the third-party connection, and the company that wants to do the tracking doesn’t know you exist.

Advertisers didn’t freak out over Tracking Protection last year, because they know most people will never turn it on. Although I use the feature regularly, I know I’m in a tiny minority. I’d be shocked if 1 in 1000 people who use the Internet employ any kind of privacy protection tools.

What has the online ad industry up in arms over this latest move is that they know that flipping the defaults really does make a difference. If online advertisers (and make no mistake about it, Google is at its heart an ad company) had to convince users to change the default setting and enable online tracking, they know that most people would refuse.

Personally, I don’t think Microsoft has gone far enough yet in terms of getting tough about online privacy. If they were really serious, they’d refine the Tracking Protection feature, make it usable by mere mortals, and turn it on by default.

I don’t expect that to happen, but if it did, the screams from the advertising industry would be downright deafening.

See also:

Topic: Microsoft

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  • IE makes the user experience miserable

    instead it should follow google's leadership and allow innovations in advertisement to flourish, so people can enjoy great free services.
    This will doom IE even faster!
    There sholud be a law to force browser makers to allow advertisers to improve our lives.
    The Linux Geek
    • I agree!

      Millions of people will flood the streets when once they are unable to see ads! Riots will break out and people will loot the Microsoft campus! Shortly after everyone will drop Windows in favor of Linux! Linux FTW........whoa that was one messed up dream.
    • RE: IE makes the user experience miserable

      The Linux Geek wrote:
      [i][Microsoft] should follow google's leadership[/i]

      Having recently emerged from the U.S. DOJ's anti-trust monitoring, I'm fairly certain that Microsoft is not interested in getting slapped with 20 years of privacy monitoring by the U.S. FTC.

      Privacy is a good differentiator for Microsoft to compete with Google. Perhaps Microsoft should consider abandoning its partnership with Facebook as well.
      Rabid Howler Monkey
    • BS...

      As a Linux Geek, have you ever in your comment history, sided with Firefox and it's Adblock add-in technology (remember, we can look it up)? Now, since IE uses it by default, you turn-tail and post against it?
      • add-ons

        I do use it on ff plus noscript (not to mention apparmor profiles).
        Yes ff is better than any other javascript capable browser in terms of plugins collection. However, chrome(ium) has similar plugins.
        IE has been always the worst one in terms of configurability, maybe it has improved now... I can't try it my GNU/Linus ... even if I wanted to :)
        BTW, Google' ads are the least annoying. Compare it with the yahoo's ones, e.g.
    • Can we remember you said that when your Inbox gets flooded with spam?

      Because you can bet you'll hear a hearty & resounding "We told you so!" when you start complaining about having to wade through 1000+ spam messages a day. After all, wouldn't the next progression in your world view be to force all email providers to stop using spam filtering & "allow advertisers to improve our lives"?

      Personally, I [b]miss[/b] the good old days of the Internet, when the only ad banners I saw were on Geocities/Lycos/Xoom/Tripod websites created by home users, & when my Spam folder had fewer messages per day than my Inbox. The day that browsers don't allow us to block 3rd-party cookies, that advertisers refuse to allow us to opt out of tracking, that the Do Not Call list is abolished, or that we can't just delete every piece of spam mail without having to read through it the day that I'll freely & gladly proclaim myself a "New Luddite", and pull the plug on the Internet.
    • One day.

      You'll get a girlfriend, get a job, get your own place and look back at this period of your life with utter shame.

      If not the latter, you'll never get the former.
    • In your opinion.

      Not only do I find IE to make the user experience great, I find it makes browsers such as Chrome and FF look and feel like trash.
  • Is Microsoft finally ready to get serious about online privacy?

    Yes they are. Screw the advertising companies and their whole faux business model. I'm ok with anything that makes the advertising business lives harder on the web. I am not heartbroken that Microsoft chose to turn on Do No Track. Don't be surprised when others follow suit except Chrome.

    Microsoft has actually done a lot to protect its users on the web. The do no track is the latest, but there is also security zones, pop up blocker, and content adviser which you will find in Internet Explorer. Kudos to Microsoft for their efforts.
    Loverock Davidson-
    • In walks ScorpioBlue...

      And despite his multitude of posts knocking you, your posts, and IE's behavior, with a rehashed view of "well, Firefox allowed you to install an ad-blocker for years...", and then flagging your posts with irreverence in a now easily discernable misleading effort to guide the seemingly unknowing to some internet Utopia undermining Microsoft at every opportunity. Now even he must (begrudingly) agree with his own nemesis - MSFT- in this move. Sorry SB, but, your years of fanatacism against MSFT and logical reasoning for this point have been negated - with one fell swoop. We all await you flagging away at my post, LD's post, and then either disappearing into the woodwork, or actively defending an indefensible position. My guess.. cowardice via anonymity, or unexplained disappearance completely. I prefer the latter, personally, as your defensive posts are the least logical of any I've seen posted on any site. BTW, name-calling, - not an acceptable defense.
      • FuzzyWuzzy had no hair FuzzyWuzzy has no bear

        Nothing to agree on. Ad-wise and privacy-wise, IE9 is the weakest browser out there. The only thing that might be worse is Maxthon and even that would be a horse race.

        Ed's widdle "Do Not track" header tickbox does not appear in IE9 so whatever they might do doesn't necessarily mean they'll do it. Or are you an unwavering fanboy who believes everything Ed tells you?
  • Do Not Track uses tracking protection lists?

    Except MS suggests Do Not Track lists and lo and behold MS sites have free pass on privacy.

    "It doesnt help that one of the five lists that Microsoft highlights for IE9 RC users just happens to give a handful of Microsoft-owned domains a free pass on privacy"

    Typical MS
    • Do you know.

      There have been a few instances in history where some truthful and great observations have gone against public opinion. Unfortunately, this isn't one of them.
  • Yeah they should turn on client side tracking protection by default as well

    No tracking doesn't mean advertisers cant push ads in your face. It just means google cant track your every website visit into the big page visit graphs they make on you to sell the advertisers. I'd love to see MS also build in adblock and turn that on by default too.
    Johnny Vegas
    • So Everyone Can Turn On "do not track" as far as I'm concerned. I'd love it

      I've long since kicked Facebook and Google off my Windows computer. I use every free resource that is reasonable to prevent tracking, because I totally hate being bombarded with marketing based on my at-home-office internet activity. If I'm interested in a product, trust me to be intelligent enough to seek it out; if a company starts harrassing me with unwelcome ads, they go on my "don't bug me" list of pests and I take special note of them as the last entities on my shopping list. Just me kicking against the attempt to be powerful in the face of the ever widening grip of well-monied corporations trying to take over my, make that business-expenses account.
      • Annoying advertising

        I go one step further, and communicate to the annoying advertiser that they have annoyed me enough with their popups, browser hijacking, and spam, that possibly I was looking for a product that their bunch tagged and pestered me about, but you can be darned sure I won't be spending my money at your company.
    • Of course they can

      Of course, nothing prevents both Google and the advertisers to track you any way they wish!

      There is no technology in IE to prevent tracking, none. There is just an knob to send an HTTP header "I wish you didn't track me". Doesn't change anything, for anyone.

      Things will get even uglier. Google will check that you set this flag and not present you these graphs. Yet store, process and sell your tracking information.

      Ignorance is bliss.
  • So, how does this affect Bing?

    It's not like it currently pumps out its ads blindly without some serious amount of ferreting out your browsing habits. Somehow I cannot see them turning that sort of tracking no matter what you think you do wrt privacy. Not the least because they probably have contracts with their advertisers who "need" that facility.
    • Not much

      Only if they employ 3rd party cookies. People tend to forget that Microsoft is a software company and not an advertising company. While some advertising companies also create software that it is not there core competency. In other words, Microsoft is not making money off Bing but they do Windows of which IE is a major part. Anything they can do to improve the end user experience benefits them. I am sure they pay out more to advertisers than they get in return.
    • Doesn't matter.......

      "Do Not Track sends a signal to web sites and advertisers telling them that the user making the request doesn???t want to be tracked. It???s up to the web site owner to voluntarily comply with that request."

      As long as any web site ignores the request, they will still track you. You know that Microsoft will ignore its own requests on Bing. Any other web site can ignore those requests too. So this amounts to be nothing more than a PR gimmick.

      Much ado about nothing.
      linux for me