Commentary

Microsoft Tweaks Do-Not-Track Plans

Microsoft has refined its decision to enable do-not-track by default in the upcoming version of Internet Explorer 10. The company now says that Windows 8 will offer users two choices at installation: "express settings" or customized. Only the express settings will include do-not-track by default.

Brendon Lynch, Microsoft's chief privacy officer, says in a blog post today that Windows 8 users "will receive prominent notice" that accepting the express settings activates do-not-track. He adds that Windows 7 users who upgrade to IE10 "will receive prominent notice that DNT is turned on in their new browser, together with a link providing more information about the setting."

Microsoft clearly hopes that the move will quell complaints by the online ad industry, which generally says that companies need only follow do-not-track headers that users have expressly activated.

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The headers themselves don't block tracking cookies. Instead, they serve as a signal that users don't want to be tracked, but it's up to ad networks and publishers to decide whether to honor those wishes. The self-regulatory organization Digital Advertising Alliance said in February that it will require members to respect the headers, but with one big condition: Users must choose to turn them on.

The Internet standards group World Wide Web Consortium currently is trying to craft recommendations for how companies should respond to the headers. That group's latest draft says that users should give "explicit and informed consent" to setting do-not-track, but also says there's no agreement yet about how to define the term.

Given that W3C participants are still arguing about what constitutes "explicit consent," Microsoft's announcement today might not end debate about its new browser.

Justin Brookman, director of consumer privacy for the Center for Democracy & Technology, tells MediaPost that Microsoft's move should make it "a lot harder for anyone in industry to creditably ignore Microsoft's Do Not Track setting." At the same time, he says, the ad industry might continue to argue that any pre-checked setting is invalid because most people don't change default settings.

Meanwhile, W3C is still struggling to figure out how to answer an even more contentious question: What does "do-not-track" actually mean? Some online ad companies say that they should be able to collect analytics data even when consumers have activated a do-not-track command, while some privacy advocates say that companies should stop gathering nearly all types of data from consumers who don't wish to be tracked.

The group is expected to wrestle with the issue through at least the end of the year.

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