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.