Microsoft's controversial decision to turn on a do-not-track header by default in its newest browser is drawing heated criticism from ad industry representatives, who criticize the software giant for taking a position contrary to self-regulatory groups.
A browser-based do-not-track header sends a request to Web sites, but doesn't block cookies or prevent tracking users in order to send them ads based on their online activity.
Instead, it's up to ad networks to decide whether to respect the header. In February, the self-regulatory group Digital Advertising Alliance said it would require members to honor do-not-track commands, but only if users had "affirmatively chosen" to activate them.
DAA counsel Stuart Ingis told Online Media Daily on Friday that he doesn't expect that ad networks will respect a do-not-track command that hasn't been activated by users. "It's hard for me to believe [that] anyone would follow the command, when it's not really a consumer choice," he says. "It's a unilateral decision, made by one browser vendor, without input by anybody."
But if ad networks ignore do-not-track headers, that raise questions about whether companies are meeting users' privacy expectations. After all, some IE10 users might have selected the browser specifically because they know that do-not-track is already enabled, while others might have enabled it themselves if Microsoft hadn't done so for them.
Justin Brookman, director of consumer privacy for the digital rights group Center for Democracy & Technology, says these questions will make it difficult for ad networks to completely ignore do-not-track headers from IE10. "I don't understand how DAA members will be able to tell whether IE10 users have affirmatively chosen DNT or just accepted the defaults," he says.
He also points out that the ad industry has long taken the position that default settings allowing online tracking reflect users' choices to accept behavioral targeting.
The DAA isn't the only one criticizing Microsoft. The Association of National Advertisers on Friday publicly urged the software giant to rethink its approach. "We request that Microsoft reconfigure IE 10, which is now in preview mode, to contain a default ‘off’ browser setting for its ‘Do Not Track’ function," the group said in a statement. "This change in mode will provide consumers a real choice as to whether they do or do not want tailored advertising, the information to make a reasoned choice, and therefore will be consumer empowering."
Mozilla, which develops the Firefox browser, also expressed criticism of Microsoft's move. "At its foundation, DNT is intended to express an individual’s choice, or preference, to not be tracked," the company says in a blog post.
"It’s important that the signal represents a choice made by the person behind the keyboard and not the software maker, because ultimately it’s not the browser being tracked, it’s the user."
Firefox was the first browser to offer a do-not-track header, but the company doesn't turn it on by default. "Firefox doesn’t broadcast anything until our user has told us what to send," Mozilla says.