Microsoft to advertisers: Drop dead

Microsoft to advertisers: Drop dead

Summary: Opt in, or opt out? A difference in defaults has the advertising industry up in arms over Internet Explorer 10.

TOPICS: Browser

Those of us in the news industry love a memorable headline, and there a few more memorable than the New York Daily News' 1975 masterpiece, "FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD," after the U.S. president refused to approve a bailout of the nation's beleaguered metropolis.

(You can see a scan of that iconic page to the right.)

Fast forward to the technology industry in 2012: you'd think, based on the advertising industry's reaction, that Microsoft said the same thing to it when it announced yesterday that the next version of its web browser, Internet Explorer 10, will ship with its "Do Not Track" feature turned on by default.

The feature sends a message to each website you visit stating that you, the user, prefer not to be tracked. Obeying the message is optional.

This morning, everyone's freaking the hell out. Wired calls the move a "nightmare" for ad networks, and the Digital Advertising Alliance felt the need to weigh in, expressing anger that Microsoft -- a partner -- would just go and make a decision without consideration (read: compliance) for the "consensus achieved over the appropriate standards for collecting and using web viewing data (and which today are enforced by strong self-regulation)."

Funny how a simple on/off switch has so many people pissed off. The end of behavioral advertising is nigh!

First, let's get the facts straight:

  • Mozilla first introduced the feature earlier this year, in Firefox 4. Unsurprisingly, advertisers didn't like it. But it wasn't on by default.
  • The spec for the feature is mostly concerned with the technical approach to it -- that is, it's mostly concerned with the hurdles to standardize such a feature, not the ethics of applying it.
  • Today's advertiser-approved solutions are largely opt-out, not opt-in, mechanisms. And they're often temporary -- the Network Advertising Initiative's tool is hardly a Do Not Call list.
  • Microsoft believes "that consumers should have more control over how information about their online behavior is tracked, shared and used," chief privacy officer Brendon Lynch wrote in a memo yesterday. Part of that choice is deciding whether or not they want to receive more relevant advertising. And here's the touchpoint: "[DNT] advances the idea of privacy as the default state."
  • DNT is supported by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission.

Until now, behavioral advertising on the Web has been the Wild West of business. Since technology legislation tends to be reactive, not proactive, advertisers have been zealously taking advantage of a massive proliferation of user activity data -- collected by your favorite platforms, such as Google and Facebook -- with advertisements that seem utterly creepy in how well they know you -- or not.

There has been a lot of A/B testing on what works within behavioral advertising, but there doesn't seem to have been as much on the practice as an effective approach relative to both the performance of ads and user experience -- though to be fair, we can't know what a world filled with behavioral targeting is like until we occupy one for a little while.

Now we have, and it feels increasingly like this.

In many ways, behavioral targeting is a good thing for both business and the consumer. Granular data about users allows advertisers to make their wares much more relevant to users, which means that they theoretically won't have to be so desperate (roll-overs, pop-ups, etc.) to get their attention. And it could be helpful to the user -- after all, if you're in the market for a new PC and a discount is advertised to you on a system you want, who wouldn't take it?

But it hasn't quite worked out that smoothly. Aside from the cultural shift that such technology is requiring -- remember when we were all concerned with what personal information we posted in chat rooms? Ha! -- it's also enabling a lot of personal data abuse.

Have you had any ads specifically call out your name, location or organizational affiliations? "Andrew, you should try Ketel One!" (I don't drink vodka.) "Since you're a CBS employee, you should try our cut-rate dental plan!" (Uh, no.) "Click LIKE to show your support for the Ivy League!" (How about I click "dislike" to show my apathy for such poor advertising?)

I share with you two more anecdotes:

The first: I'm writing this post from Paris, France, where all of the ad network display advertisements I see on the web -- despite being an English-speaking American -- have suddenly turned French. (I don't need a Renault, guys! Really! And that other ad? I don't even know what it says!)

The second: When I got engaged in 2010, and my (now) wife and I changed our statuses accordingly, she was pummeled with ads about wedding planning and dresses and catering and you name it. (Oddly, and perhaps deserving of further sociological scrutiny, I was not.) When we tied the knot, all her ads turned planning. (No thanks, we're good for now!)

In practice, all behavioral advertising has managed to do is annoy the hell out of me...on a personal level. It is a much deeper level of rejection than seeing a billboard I disagree with on the highway, because I know there's an attempt being made that's failing. But I don't have the time or energy to swat all of these new digital mosquitos. As a gatekeeper to the web, Microsoft is taking a step to do that for me -- and all the average web-using people who have no idea what's going on and couldn't tell you the name of the current U.S. vice president, much less what a cookie is.

Yet behavioral advertising retains its potential, its allure. That's what we're seeing here in this latest flareup: advertisers see it as an attack on the technology and their stewardship of the issue; Microsoft sees the current practice of it as an attack on users' quality of life, and is temporarily taking control of it.

And so each party talks past the other. Ad infinitum.

The truth is, we don't know what's going to happen as Microsoft rolls out this feature. In fact, we should all support the decision -- if only to gather data on how it impacts user behavior, and subsequently compare it to the on-by-default option. Are users more, or less, engaged? Are they more, or less, peeved? (It's not like they're going to stop using the web in protest.) Are online advertisers making more, or less, money?

None of this should require additional action by the user, and that's why both sides are at odds.

The DAA says Microsoft's move "threatens to undermine that balance, limiting the availability and diversity of Internet content and services for consumers." The way I see it, the move restores some balance to the issue of whether behavioral advertising has proven to be advantageous or not. It's a slap on the wrist of an industry that occasionally runs amok -- not as a form of punishment, mind you, but a way to limit the collateral damage we keep seeing.

Because sometimes I just want an ice-cold can of Coca-Cola, and it has nothing to do with how old I am or where I live or who I work for. (But maybe, just maybe, how deathly hot outside it is right now.)

Good behavioral advertising can accomplish that. But too often, it hasn't.

Topic: Browser

Andrew Nusca

About Andrew Nusca

Andrew Nusca is a former writer-editor for ZDNet and contributor to CNET. During his tenure, he was the editor of SmartPlanet, ZDNet's sister site about innovation.

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  • Nah

    This is an attempt to attack companies like Google.

    They will just create a page that allows the user to authorize the tracking for the free services.
    • It is to protect their users

      Companies like Google do not provide free services. And here is the clincher: Even though Google does not charger their users (a.k.a., their product), Google's products are not [i]free[/i] to their users, if by free you mean "doesn't cost them anything."

      See, this line here in the blog indicates that most people don't understand how advertising works: "And it could be helpful to the user after all, if youre in the market for a new PC and a discount is advertised to you on a system you want, who wouldnt take it?"

      The problem is this, advertising works two ways, one way is to create demand for a product that there would otherwise not be demand for, so that the consumer will purchase it. But this is the small minority of cases of advertising. Most advertising works to increase demand for a specific version of a product that a person wants anyway [i]so that the consumer will spend more on it[/i]. This is why off-label products can be sold at such enormous discounts. Some "cheap knockoffs" are inferior, but most are just missing the label.

      If targeted advertising actually works, and you can bet it does or Google would still be some Podunk company no one had ever heard of, then advertisers, who spend billions of dollars on the sight, know that they can charge more for their products and still get their customers to buy them as a consequence of advertising on Google; so much more that they [i]make more than the cost of advertising back again[/i]. That is to say, as a user of Google you will spend [i]more[/i] money, not less, on the products you are looking for than you would have if you didn't search Google for them. And the better able Google (or anyone else, but they were the company mentioned) are to tailor adds to your specific likes, the better able Google's costumers will be to raise prices on said product.

      And so you pay. That "discount" would probably not seem so great if you actually saw everyone's offer, even the brand's who aren't advertising.

      MS, who makes their money by directly selling you something, has no interest in helping other companies make you pay more for yet other companies' stuff. Personally, while I have no love for MS, I say bravo to this move. If it hurt's Google (who I likewise have no love for), so what?
      x I'm tc
  • Sound good to me

    It should be 'opt-in' anyway
    • that's an assault on the Internet and user's welfare!

      M$ is trying to impair the ability of FOSS to deliver exceptional service to the people. The DoJ and FTC should step in for the public good and demand opt out as the only user friendly option!
      The Linux Geek
      • My friend.

        Please go outside once in a while.
      • Loverock, you're other ego is more entertaining

      • Hmmmmmmmm....?

        Methinks we have found the fellow who's been making that "Bath Salts" crap... >:(
      • Take a deep breathe and remove those coloured glasses...

        This is hardly an attack of FOSS, not all of whom have resorted of "friendly referrals" (and I am VERY quickly losing my love of uTorrent for this exact behaviour upon the install of each and every update!) as many FOSS applications still veer away from this kind of adware technique... and it doesn't stop advertising, it just aims to limit the amount of MY PERSONAL DATA ending up in the hands of advertising agencies, who have very little limitations preventing them from sharing/selling that information to others for further profit...
  • That's where Google's problem lies

    They live and die via advertising, where MS, Apple, etc. actually generate most of their revenue by selling actual hardware and software. MS saw an opportunity to differentiate on an topic that's slowly becoming more of a hotbutton issue. Google can do little about it short of cutting off its nose to spite its face.

    It still boggles my mind how indifferent most people are to the tracking/monitoring that tech companies, telecom and government do. While I still use Google Search and Chrome (use pretty much all browsers), I get a kick out of the first launch of a fresh Chrome install where the first thing I'm presented with is a request to login to chrome 'to make my experience better.' That behavior alone is rather telling.

    No thanks Google. Your search engine gets me what I'm looking for just fine without being logged in.

    As for the advertisers, god forbid MS actually does something they feel is in the consumers' interest rather than catering to their business partners. I'm not exactly MS's biggest fan, but I'll give credit where credit is due.
    • Google still tracks you...

      ... Regardless if you're logged in or not, unless you're able to realize that you can block their cookies, and web services with AdBlock and NoScript.
      The one and only, Cylon Centurion
      • Better still block in at the DNS level with a hosts file.

        That way it really doesn't matter.
      • Well aware...

        I just find it telling that their first course of action on a fresh install is to essentially request you're active participation in their tracking. They really don't even try to tell you exactly how doing so is going to make it better for you, it's just "trust me, it will be better."
      • Better still block in at the DNS level with a hosts file

        And then you'll find yourself not being able to view certain webpages because Google Analytics can't get through to your browser.

        It's happened to me on more than one occasion.
    • that is anti competitive

      and the people should raise against M$.
      The Linux Geek
      • Raise what?

        you mean rise.

        Keep taking the meds, you'll get there one day. Until then, I'll be your friend.
      • Un you are just being anti-logical

        Please leave the basement once in a while... the lack of oxygen is starving your intellect...
    • MS kudos

      I hate MS's guts, but here I can say nothing else but kudos to MS. They could have left it turned off by default- the easy way out of this.
      • forward

        Setting is also as default is a little step more forward. This could put pressure on the competition to do the same. You may wonder about Msft motivation, but the kind of tracking that is now going on goes against European (and Canadian ?) privacy regulations. It had to stop some time.
        People looking for some products could allow advertising from a kind of control panel. But there are so many alternatives to advertising for companies to communicate with there clients. Just one example. The shops in our neighbourhood should work together, offer an easy way for us to compare and decide where the Saturday shopping trip should go. Not forgetting the transport and time costs.
        And yes for Msft it looks as quite a change.
        How many of us did not switch to Firefox to avoid all that advertising. Changing home pages. Perhaps not on purpose, but the Swiss cheese security of that browser allowed everything. Mozilla role in all this looks for me more important and consistent.
        And just let's hope Msft now really takes that direction and to site with the consumer. For instance does not try to push paying standards like H.256 if there are free alternatives.
      • That's if they're to be believed

        It could just be a publicity stunt. It remains to be seen since IE still has no plug-ins that effectively do the job.

        Another reason not to use it.
    • first reaction

      My first reaction when I set up the blocking lists in IE 9 - is Microsoft prepared to forgo advertising revenue to tank Google? Even when you are not using Google, Google is using you. Check out web beacons on major newspapers and find that a good percentage, half or more, feed your information to Google