Advertisers complain the Internet Explorer browser tool will hinder their ability to support free news, entertainment and other online content.
Less than a week after federal regulators proposed giving web users a "do-not-track" option against online advertisers, Microsoft announced that it will add its own tracking protection mechanism in the next version of Internet Explorer 9.
Microsoft said Tuesday that the privacy tool would be in IE when it ships next year. The mechanism would give users the option of subscribing to a "tracking protection list" that would contain the names of web addresses used by tracking companies. Organizations on the list would be prevented from communicating with the browser.
Tracking has become a powerful tool for online advertisers to identify groups of people who may be interested in products or services based on their web activities. The practice has been denounced by privacy advocates who argue advertisers have no right to use people's personal information, including their use of the web, without first getting permission.
The Interactive Advertising Board, the trade group representing the $23 billion online ad industry, released a statement to InformationWeek expressing concerns with the tech vendors' plans, while also supporting its efforts at self-regulation in the privacy area. "We are concerned that the new browser features will block the advertising that supports free content on the Internet, and may inadvertently block news, entertainment and social media content as well," the IAB said.
Consumer advocacy groups had a different take on Microsoft's plans. The Consumer Watchdog welcomed the tech vendor's announcement, while insisting that self-regulation by companies wasn't enough and Congress still needed to pass "do not track me" legislation to protect consumers. "Privacy protection demands enforceable rules," John M. Simpson, a project director in Consumer Watchdog, said in a statement.
Microsoft's plan goes further than last week's Federal Trade Commission's proposal, which recommended that a "do not call" mechanism be placed in browsers. If activated, the technology would notify web sites that a person did not want to be tracked, but left it up to the site to comply.
Microsoft goes further by automatically blocking tracking companies. The protection feature would not be on by default, so IE users would have to manually turn it on. "We designed this feature so that consumers have a clear, straightforward, opt-in mechanism to enable a higher degree of control over sharing their browsing information," Dean Hachamovitch, a corporate VP for Microsoft, said in the company's IE blog.
Web tracking is typically accomplished through websites planting small text files called cookies and bits of code called beacons. Two years ago, Microsoft watered down plans to add in IE8 mechanisms to thwart such technologies.
The company had planned to add a tracking protection feature called InPrivate Filtering that automatically blocked sites suspected of tracking web users. In addition, the IE team had proposed adding a feature called InPrivate Subscriptions that would automatically block sites that appeared on a blacklist compiled by privacy groups.
At roughly the same time, Microsoft bought online advertising firm aQuantive for $6 billion. When executives from the company's advertising group complained about the new privacy features, Microsoft removed inPrivate Subscriptions and required InPrivate Filtering to be turned on every time the user launched the web browser, The Wall Street Journal reported.