Wait A Sec: When Did Microsoft Become My Nanny?

The kerfuffle, as Jon Stewart would say, over Microsoft’s decision to make Do Not Track (DNT) the default setting on its upcoming Internet Explorer 10 has had the kind of accelerated explosion that can only occur on the Internet. Within hours of the rollout of the browser's review version and one line in a company press release, much of the digital advertising industry, and many in the burgeoning “privacy industry,” had a tantrum. As our own Wendy Davis recounts in her story yesterday, there are some fine points that the Microsoft announcement seems to elide.

For one, there's a real possibility that publishers and ad networks will be less likely to acknowledge and obey the DNT flag if it is a default setting on a browser. This may not be the wisest course a publisher can take, but it seems a plausible unintended result. Moreover, there remains disagreement about how to define DNT when it is turned on -- and what consumer expectations are for what it does and does not allow from a site and its ad and data partners.

In addition to statements by the DMA and others in the industry late yesterday, the Digital Advertising Alliance (DAA), a coalition of six marketing associations behind the self-regulatory AdChoices ad icon, objected to the way Microsoft seemed to be circumventing some of the work that had already been done to allow transparency within a consumer tracking ecosystem. “Today’s technology announcement, however, threatens to undermine that balance, limiting the availability and diversity of Internet content and services for consumers,” says DAA General Counsel Stu Ingis in a statement.

The group says it "is very concerned that this unilateral decision by one browser maker - 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. The resulting marketplace confusion will not benefit consumers, and will profoundly impact the broad array of advertising-supported services they currently enjoy.”

But late yesterday Microsoft’s own Chief Privacy Officer Brendon Lynch posted a lengthy defense of the decision on the Microsoft TechNet blog. And here is where it gets curious. Lynch reiterates the company line about how  “We’ve made today’s decision because we believe in putting people first. We believe that consumers should have more control over how information about their online behavior is tracked, shared and used.”

I have to say that as a citizen, a longtime Web user, a privacy defender, and an occasional libertarian, I object to one of the largest corporations on the planet telling me it is ensuring my “control” and “choice” over my Web experience by making a decision for me. The persistent lead line from Microsoft is that IE 10 “will be the first browser to have DNT on by default,” which sounds more like marketing than consumer advocacy.

But more to the point, and missed in much of the tumult about this issue, Lynch himself admits that Microsoft’s own ad network is for now not heeding the DNT flag.  He says that Microsoft Advertising claimed earlier this year that it “intends” to take the DNT flag as a user signal to opt out of behavioral tracking. But he also says, “Microsoft does not yet respond to the DNT signal, but we are actively working with other advertising industry leaders on what an implementation plan for DNT might look like, with a goal of announcing our plans in the coming months.” So if he said what I think he just said, it means Microsoft is toggling on a DNT signal it doesn’t even itself yet honor.

Am I missing something here?

Whatever Microsoft’s motives, consistency or even sincerity around the IE 10 announcement, there is still the larger issue here of what constitutes consumer “choice” in the privacy debates. Enhancing consumer choice does not mean making choices for them. Real choice is the end result of being informed. Everything about this statement from Microsoft and its declaration about IE 10 is aimed at a single toggle, not about enhancing choice. There are subtler and more informative ways of working  with consumers toward informed choice -- things like a Ghostery or PrivacyChoice cookie monitor, an A/B example of the browser experience with and without tracking, etc. I would be more drawn to switching back to IE after years with both Firefox and Chrome if Microsoft promised something more ambitious and respectful of consumers than “first-ever” DNT by default. 

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5 comments about "Wait A Sec: When Did Microsoft Become My Nanny? ".
  1. Cara Scharf from Fearless Media, LLC , June 1, 2012 at 6:47 p.m.
    I totally agree with you. Does MSFT think this will make them cool? I think they miss the point. Privacy controlled by a large corporation no longer feels like privacy.
  2. Mark Smith from Sevencamp , June 3, 2012 at 11:36 a.m.
    Ok so while it is admittedly disconcerting that Microsoft does not yet respond to their own DNT signal. 1. Why should I trust my privacy to a coalition of marketing associations (remind me - where to they get their funding again?) 2. And since when did opt-in become the exception rather than the rule. It's laughable to suggest that I should rely on a marketing coalition to define my user experience and that I should have to opt out to take back control of that experience. In a era where total control over my interface is the battle ground - I see no issue with anyone giving me a no effort say in the matter. Read more: http://www.mediapost.com/publications/article/175959/wait-a-sec-when-did-microsoft-become-my-nanny.html#ixzz1wkDyenk8
  3. Jeffrey Chester from CDD , June 3, 2012 at 11:56 a.m.
    Few consumers know about the many stealth and far-reaching ways the digital marketing industry collects and uses their data. That includes information related to their personal finances, health, children, etc. Microsoft deserves praise for making greater privacy a default. They are acting more responsibly--something the online ad industry has failed to do. Marketers don't tell consumers about the many ways they collect data from users (how about a series of exposes from MediaPost on lead-gen; conversion funnel testing; real-time ad exchange sales and viral social media marketing apps, etc). Perhaps if consumers really understood how the system worked, they could make informed decisions. It's true, we still to define how DNT works (we want it to stop collection). But rather than cast blame at Microsoft, online marketers should be asking themselves some hard questions about transparency, user control, and candor.
  4. Kendall Allen from WIT Strategy , June 4, 2012 at 9:04 a.m.
    Really great piece. Among other things, you've done a great job of highlighting this camp's contorted view on "choice" -- and what legitimately can count as, or facilitate, consumer choice.
  5. Media Maven from NA , June 4, 2012 at 5:39 p.m.
    We all know consumers don't like to be tracked. I'm running ghostery (thanks evidon) as I type this so cookies aren't a big deal to me any more. However, the general marketplace isn't so well educated at this moment. I think a nice compromise would be asking a user when they download Firefox, IE, Chrome etc if they want to be tracked. If they don't want to be tracked then they can chose not to be upon installation.