Around 10 days ago, Microsoft blindsided online ad companies with the announcement that it intends to turn on do-not-track by default in the Internet Explorer 10 browser.
Industry groups quickly condemned the move, which would turn online behavioral advertising into an opt-in system for IE10 users. The umbrella group Digital Advertising Alliance said that ad networks might not be required to respect do-not-track headers that were activated by default, while the Association of National Advertisers publicly called on Microsoft to reverse course.
Last Wednesday, members of the Internet standards group World Wide Web Consortium appeared to pile on. Some participants said in their weekly conference call that do-not-track settings shouldn't be turned on by default -- though a summary of the meeting also shows that participants left open the door for default settings in certain cases.
"Today we reaffirmed the group consensus that a user agent MUST NOT set a default ... unless the act of selecting that user agent is itself a choice that expresses the user's preference for privacy," reads the summary of the call. In other words, if it can be argued that users' selection of a browser in itself expresses a privacy preference, then a default do-not-track setting might be all right with W3C.
Despite the apparent ambiguity, some observers quickly concluded that Microsoft would retreat from its plan to turn on do-not-track automatically.
But Microsoft itself now disputes that interpretation. In a blog post issued on Friday afternoon, chief privacy officer Brendon Lynch reiterated the company's support for a default do-not-track activation.
"Although there definitely are important benefits from targeted ads, many people are not comfortable receiving them," Lynch wrote, referencing a study released in March by the Pew Internet & American Life Project. That study found that nearly seven in 10 survey respondents said they were "not okay" with receiving targeted ads because they don't want to be tracked and profiled.
Lynch added that users' opinions about targeting, combined with the "privacy by design" concept, led the company to decide that "the appropriate privacy-friendly default for DNT in IE10 is 'on.' "
What's more, he wrote, the W3C hasn't yet issued a final standard -- which means that the W3C could end up endorsing Microsoft's do-not-track by default setting.
"In short, we agree with those who say this is all about user choice. However, we respectfully disagree with those who argue that the default setting for DNT should favor tracking as opposed to privacy," Lynch writes.