Microsoft recently hit the headlines for their “Do Not Track” (DNT) implementation in Internet Explorer 10. In all other browsers, DNT is disabled by default — the user must specifically enable it. In IE10, DNT will be enabled by default. Users will be asked their preference when running IE for the first time but, if they go with the standard settings (as most do), DNT will be set.
The decision has outraged many corporations and the Association of National Advertisers. In an open letter to Steve Ballmer, the ANA write:
We believe that if Microsoft moves forward with this default setting, it will undercut the effectiveness of our members’ advertising and, as a result, drastically damage the online experience by reducing the Internet content and offerings that such advertising supports. This result will harm consumers, hurt competition, and undermine American innovation and leadership in the Internet economy. ANA along with our partner trade associations in the DAA are very troubled by Microsoft’s actions.
When presented as a default “on” by design Microsoft is no longer creating a choice of whether or not data about consumers will be tracked. Rather, Microsoft appears determined to stop the collection of web viewing data. That is unacceptable.
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 [IE's market share] 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.
Microsoft’s decision to block collection and use of information by default will significantly reduce the diversity of Internet offerings and potentially cheat society of the robust offerings that are currently available.
Microsoft’s announcement has been uniformly met with outrage, opposition, and declarations that Microsoft’s action is wrong. The entire media ecosystem has condemned this action.
The Apache Software Foundation called Microsoft’s actions a “deliberate abuse of open standards” and released a patch for the server software which overrides the privacy setting in IE10.
I doubt Microsoft envisaged this level of controversy. At face value, it seems reasonable. Given a choice, most users would opt-out of tracking. However, DNT was intended as a non-default option; nothing is protected unless the service believes it was set by a human with a genuine preference for privacy over personalization.
The issue makes me uncomfortable. First is the ANA’s television example; DNT isn’t a choice between advertising and no advertising. It’s a choice between seeing adverts based on your browsing behavior or seeing the same adverts as everyone else (like TV). Web advertisements won’t disappear; they’ll simply become less targeted for IE10 users. That will inevitably affect revenue, but it’s not an all or nothing comparison.
Next point: advertisers are stating they are happy to abide with DNT, but only if that setting is not presented up-front. Since few people change their browser settings, DNT will never be enabled by the vast majority of the web.
But consider expert web users. Anyone with reasonable technical knowledge can already restrict tracking and advertising using solutions including:
- third-party cookie blocking
- add-ons such as Adblock Plus and Greasemonkey, and
- filtering proxy servers such as Proxomitron, Proximodo and Privoxy.
So, experts can already prevent tracking and regular users will never set DNT. In other words, the status quo is maintained and the web carries on as before. So what’s the point of “Do Not Track”?
DNT feels like a solution designed to appease privacy campaigners without a fundamental shift in web activity. Is DNT really “an open standard” which Microsoft has broken? Why shouldn’t users be provided with a choice at installation? Whether it was intentional or not, at least Microsoft has raised these issues. The debate will continue…