Ad industry blasts Microsoft over Do Not Track defaults in IE 10

In an open letter, an influential U.S.-based lobbying group for the advertising industry has sharply criticized Microsoft's decision to enable Do Not Track as the default setting in Internet Explorer 10.
Written by Ed Bott, Senior Contributing Editor

A U.S.-based organization representing the advertising industry has sharply criticized Microsoft for its decision to enable the Do Not Track feature in a standard installation of Internet Explorer 10, the default browser in Windows 8.

In an open letter to Microsoft published on its website, the Board of Directors of the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) called Microsoft’s decision “shocking” and argued that “Microsoft’s announcement has been uniformly met with outrage, opposition, and declarations that Microsoft’s action is wrong.”

The letter is signed by representatives of a Who’s Who of multinational corporations, including General Motors Corporation, GE, IBM, and Coca-Cola. It’s filled with enough industry jargon to be an instant winner in any game of buzzword bingo, and despite the sharp rhetoric it’s notably short on data and filled with inconsistencies, misleading arguments, and a few statements that can be characterized as outright falsehoods.

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The dust-up stems from Microsoft’s decision to enable the Do Not Track header for IE 10 in an express installation of Windows 8. If a user sets up Windows 8 and accepts the default settings, the browser will send the DNT:1 signal to any website that user subsequently visits. In theory, the DNT:1 signal means the user has expressed the intent for his or her online behavior to not be tracked.

The ANA argues that this “opt in” decision is unacceptable:

Default policy choices should be set by looking to what is best for society as a whole, while giving individuals who have strong preferences the ability to make a different choice. By making this selection for consumers and presenting it in the terms that Microsoft has used, you are presenting the wrong choice to consumers and making a choice for them in a way that is fundamentally bad for consumer interests and the Internet services that they cherish, and even worse concealing this trade-off from them.

So what’s wrong with the ANA’s argument?

First, the group argues that opposition to Microsoft’s action is virtually unanimous, and it quotes “The Chairman of the Federal Trade Commission” in support of the argument that “the right standard is a default of ‘off’ for ‘do-not-track,’ recognizing the harm to consumers that Microsoft’s decision could create.”

But that statement is well off the mark. For starters, the letter in question (PDF) is from FTC Commissioner J. Thomas Rosch, not FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz. Rosch’s letter goes on to say, “To be sure, Microsoft’s proposed default setting solves the ‘accessibility’ issue that has long confronted consumers who wish to implement a DNT browser setting.” And Commissioner Rosch also notes the issue that the ANA tries to sweep under the rug, which is that the proposed DNT standard is completely toothless:

[Microsoft’s default setting] does not solve at all the fact that the recipient of the signal must still choose to honor the signal and refrain from tracking consumers and/or collecting data about them.

Second, by arguing that “the entire media ecosystem has condemned this action,” the advertising lobbying group ignores the wishes of the public, who have consistently expressed concerns about the amount of data that is being collected without their permission. An article that the ANA letter references approvingly includes this statement from Mozilla’s chief privacy officer, Alex Fowler:

The public is increasingly uneasy about the extent to which their online lives are invisibly profiled, analyzed, packaged, sold and reused to personalize advertising, content and services.

Third, the group deliberately muddies the issues by arguing that blocking the collection of data will somehow stop advertising:

Microsoft appears determined to stop the collection of web viewing data. That is unacceptable. The result of such a large percentage of data collection being blocked seriously undermines consumers’ interests by potentially diminishing the robust content and services available over the Internet.

A simple example of advertising in the television medium makes this point clear. If consumers were presented a choice of whether they want advertisements on network television to be broadcast, consumers would likely choose “no advertising.” But if 43 percent of American households were removed from the television advertising audience, consumers collectively would suffer because network television as we know it would no longer be a viable business model. The choice would not be one of advertising or no advertising; the choice would be one of advertising or no network television shows. Similarly, the choice that consumers actually face is between continuing to allow advertising to subsidize Internet offerings, or paying more for offerings that they currently enjoy for free or at a low cost.

That argument is ludicrous. Enabling Do Not Track will not stop advertising. In fact, the comparison to television advertising undermines the ANA’s position completely. Ad-supported television networks are able to survive without having any form of data collection to target ads to individual sets. Why is Internet advertising different?

Finally, the ad industry argues that the default for all web browsing should be set to allow them to collect data with no limitations:

[I]t is clear that a default “off” setting for consumers to control online data collection strikes the right balance for society as a whole. If consumers were presented with the right choice of responsible collection and use of this data in exchange for today’s vast advantages of the Internet, there is no question what the right choice is.

In fact, the statement from Chairman Leibowitz to Ad Age appears to indirectly support Microsoft’s intent while disagreeing with the details of its implementation: “My position is clear: I support an easy, persistent opt out on third-party tracking that limits collection with a few exceptions, such as security.” That “easy” ability to say no to tracking is what the advertising and data collection industries are trying to prevent.

It’s clear that Microsoft is attempting to use privacy as a way to differentiate its browser. The ferocity of the opposition from the advertising industry suggests they’ve hit a nerve.

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