New “Do Not Track” Specification Kills Microsoft’s Plans for Protecting Users with IE 10

This week, the industry group responsible for the “Do Not Track” privacy protection functionality issued a proposed change to the spec that contradicts Microsoft’s plans to enable this feature by default in its next browser, Internet Explorer (IE) 10. “Do Not Track” must be disabled by default and manually enabled by users, according to this new spec. And that means Microsoft will need to change IE.

Put another way, although Microsoft was clearly doing the right thing and protecting user privacy over the needs of advertisers, the industry group responsible for this spec is reversing that goal and putting the needs of advertisers ahead of users' needs. And Microsoft has no choice but to change IE 10 yet again to match the spec.

Why is that, you ask? Why can’t Microsoft simply exceed the spec and continue enabling “Do Not Track” in its own browser, offering its own users better protection than that in other browsers?

The problem is that “Do Not Track” is opt-in. That is, websites must explicitly respect the setting in the browser and work accordingly. And even under Microsoft’s fairly draconian (to advertisers) scheme, many websites would simply ignore the setting. But with the “Do Not Track” spec holder—tellingly named Digital Advertising Alliance—rejecting the automatic enabling of this feature, even websites that do respect “Do Not Track” will be free to ignore IE 10’s protections. So Microsoft will have to change it.

The Digital Advertising Alliance suddenly proposed the changes to the spec in the wake of Microsoft’s announcement about auto-on “Do Not Track” in IE 10. And it expressed anger that the software giant would have the temerity to protect users over the needs of its advertiser constituents.

“[Microsoft] threatens to undermine that balance, limiting the availability and diversity of Internet content and services for consumers,” Digital Advertising Alliance General Counsel Stu Ingis said. The industry group said in a statement that Microsoft’s “unilateral decision, made without consultation within the self-regulatory process, may ultimately narrow the scope of consumer choices, undercut thriving business models, and reduce the availability and diversity of the Internet products and services that millions of American consumers currently enjoy at no charge.”

Clearly, working with the industry isn’t the answer if Microsoft is serious about protecting its users. And since Microsoft will need to change IE anyway, my vote is for the company to implement a hard line “Do Not Track” technology that web advertisers can’t avoid, and to enable this feature by default. The software giant’s original decision to protect users first was the right one. Clearly, expecting the advertisers that are silently tracking user movements online to respect that is too much to ask.

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