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In June 2012 Microsoft announced Internet Explorer 10 would install with a Do Not Track feature activated by default. The announcement caused a flurry of protests from online business interests and accusations Microsoft was attempting to hamstring Google's cookie-based advertisements.
Bowing to pressure, Microsoft quickly reversed its position, and the DNT feature will no longer be active by default. Why all the fuss over a privacy setting?
Do Not Track Flags
Do Not Track settings originated with Mozilla's Firefox 4 as an extra privacy feature. The feature uses an HTTP flag to tell websites and advertisers that the user wants to opt out of behavioral advertising tracking. If you were browsing websites looking for industrial sweepers, for instance, the DNT flag would deter advertisers from displaying targeted ads for floor cleaners on unrelated websites. The DNT doesn’t prohibit advertisers from tracking behavior; it merely indicates the user would prefer not to be tracked.
This doesn’t, however, mean that advertisers could simply ignore the Do Not Track flag. The Federal Trade Commission, which has serious doubts about the willingness of online advertisers to self-regulate their industry, supports the use of DNT flags. The FTC has threatened online privacy legislation in the past, a move the advertising industry does not want. As a result, advertisers are likely to respect DNT flags, considering self-policing a lesser evil than legislation.
The Effect of Default DNT
Given the advertisers’ willingness (grudging or not) to abide by DNT flags, why did Microsoft's announcement cause such a tizzy? Quite bluntly, most advertisers weren't too put out by DNT features because the feature needs to be activated. Most people don’t alter their browser settings, so won't activate the Do Not Track feature.
But along comes Microsoft, stating that DNT will be active by default for Internet Explorer 10. Given that Internet Explorer dominates browsers, up to a quarter of all browser users would have been going online with active DNT flags. That would have a serious effect on targeted advertising.
Don’t assume, however, that Microsoft was acting out of altruism and concern for your privacy. Google is, arguably, Microsoft's biggest online competitor. By making Do Not Track a default setting, Microsoft would have struck a serious blow to Google's advertising arm, which makes use of tracking technology and cookies.
Microsoft's idea was inspired, really. Had they stuck to their guns, the company could have delivered a sucker punch to Google while hiding behind concern for user privacy. The response from online business concerns, however, was so strong that Microsoft reneged on the default setting within six days. IE10 will still include DNT features, but users will have to activate the feature … good news if you use targeted advertising, but a bit of a blow if you're a privacy advocate.