Good Microsoft versus Bad Microsoft on privacy

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?
Written by Ed Bott, Senior Contributing Editor

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.

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