Microsoft sparks ad controversy again- ‘Do Not Track’ set as default for new IE browser

08/08/2012

Microsoft has stuck to its guns over a controversial decision to implement ‘Do Not Track’ options as the default setting for its forthcoming Internet Explorer 10 browser. The move has already sparked outcry from advertisers who fear it will drive down the effectiveness of targeted ads. Internet Explorer 10 will automatically block personal information gathered from users web browsing habits, data shared by third-party companies to serve up targeted advertising.

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Upon booting Windows 8 for the first time, users will be greeted with a choice between "Express Settings" or "Customize," the former of which has "do not track" enabled.

IE 10 on Windows 7 will receive a similar treatment, with a "prominent notice" about the setting being switched on appearing alongside a link to additional information.

"Do Not Track" is a Web privacy scheme that tells online advertisers not to collect or use information specific to a user's Web requests and responses.

Ongoing controversy

The move puts Microsoft out in front of a process to set new Internet privacy standards and puts it at odds with the online advertising industry. The move has been contradicted by the industry regulator that set up the DNT scheme.

The firm initially announced plans to make Do Not Track default back in May, but delayed its decision after protests from the ad industry.

That stance has not changed -- if users take no action, the feature will be enabled -- but today the company's chief privacy officer noted that customers can modify the setting if they want.

"DNT will be enabled in the 'Express Settings' portion of the Windows 8 set-up experience," Brendon Lynch, Microsoft's chief privacy officer, said in a Tuesday post to a company blog. "There, customers will also be given a 'Customize' option, allowing them to easily switch DNT off if they'd like."

Customers using the Express (default) settings will have Do Not Track turned on, and those using the Custom settings option will have the ability to turn it off.

Impact on advertising

Advertisers can still show advertisements; however, they're not allowed to, for example, record that a user browsed several hotel websites to then show ads for other hotels.

The move has caused outcry form the ad industry. In a statement, Mike Zaneis, senior vice-president and general counsel for the Interactive Advertising Bureau in the US, said: "Targeted advertising sells for two-and-a-half times as much as nontargeted advertising. It's very effective. When a browser like Microsoft comes in and sets (do not track) by default, they just gave everybody a 60-per-cent off coupon for our product. We can't survive in that world."

Regulator at odds with Microsoft decision?

Set up by the World Wide Web Consortium's Tracking Protection Working Group, Not Track signals whether a user wants online advertisers and websites to track his or her movements. All five major browsers -- Chrome, Firefox, Internet Explorer, Opera and Safari -- can send a DNT signal.

However, within days, the group creating the Do Not Track specification released an update saying that the Do Not Track header only counted when it was explicitly chosen by the user.

A new draft specification is being worked out by a group of privacy advocates, browser makers, technology firms and online ad companies.

The current proposal states:

"Today we reaffirmed the group consensus that a user agent MUST NOT set a default of DNT:1 or DNT:0, unless the act of selecting that user agent is itself a choice that expresses the user’s preference for privacy. In all cases, a DNT signal MUST be an expression of a user’s preference.”

Microsoft, however, argues that software should be private by default, saying that its decision "put[s] people first," and that the textual description during the Windows 8 setup process provides adequate information to let users know what's going on, and the ability to customize the setup gives users enough control. It may be a default, but it's an informed default that the user has explicitly agreed to.

Microsoft's action may cause W3C to reassess its position. It might just as well derail the entire Do Not Track effort, or at least cause the advertisers to drop their already tentative support.

Read the Microsoft announcement here

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