Microsoft will include tracking protection functionality in the next version of its popular Internet Explorer Web browser, limiting the ability of third parties such as advertising companies and analytics providers to track users' online behavior, if they so wish.
The announcement comes just days after the FTC issued an online privacy report calling for a browser-based "do-not-track" mechanism. That report was referenced repeatedly today during a webcast announcing the feature. "The FTC framework was broad, and invited discussion… We look forward to working with all stakeholders in the space to advance that discussion," said Dean Hachamovitch, Microsoft's head of Internet Explorer development.
The new IE feature, dubbed "Tracking Protection," will enable users to download lists to their browsers including "do not allow" or "allow" commands for individual third parties which will control their ability to track users' online behavior and to place cookies on their machines.
The lists can be authored by anyone and will be automatically updated on a weekly basis. The rationale behind the system, Hachamovitch said, is that consumers can choose which organizations or groups they trust to provide them with lists. For example, a privacy or organization might choose to compile its own list, as could a media company or even a government entity. "Consumers will need to be thoughtful about where they find their lists," he said.
However, the system will not apply to browser plug-ins such as Adobe's Flash and Microsoft's own Silverlight platform, which could potentially still be used to store information on users' online activities. In its report the FTC specifically referenced the use of Flash cookies for data tracking, suggesting Microsoft's solution might fall short of FTC expectations for a suitable "do-not-track" mechanism.
Despite the fact the protection feature will be switched off by default, widespread adoption of it could have major implications for the online advertising industry. If, for example, a large portion of users adopts lists targeting all third party data collection, online ad functions such as behavioral targeting, frequency capping, and basic ad reporting could be severely impacted.
In response to questions from ClickZ, Hachamovitch clarified lists can also be used to limit the functionality of third party analytics platforms, on which most publishers rely to help successfully monetize their online content. He also stated, however, that he expects the feature to attract "far, far, far less than 100 percent adoption."
Despite the potential implications of the technology, Peter Cullen, Microsoft's chief privacy strategist, suggested there is an opportunity for the advertising and analytics ecosystem to involve itself with the creation of "allow lists," in what he described a "yin and yang" situation.
"There's enormous opportunity for industry to help think about how these lists would be developed, and how they can be made transparent to users," Cullen said, referencing the self-regulatory guidelines and initiatives being explored by ad industry bodies and other organizations. "This seems to be the right balance," he continued, in reference to transparency and consumer choice versus the interests of advertisers and online publishers.
Writing on the Microsoft Advertising Blog today, Rik van der Kooi, corporate VP of the company's Advertiser and Publisher Solutions Group stated, "As one of the leading online advertisers and ad platform companies ourselves, Microsoft has a substantial interest in helping the online advertising industry grow… We believe that the convergence of new privacy tools and robust advertising growth can, in fact, co-exist and we are uniquely positioned to provide thought leadership in both areas."
In light of that, Microsoft says it also hopes to encourage the adoption of its system among other browser manufacturers, promoting interoperability of the lists. The software will therefore be made available under a creative commons license, meaning it could, in theory, be relatively easily implemented in browsers such as Mozilla's Firefox and Google Chrome.
In response to queries from ClickZ regarding its own stance on the FTC's do-not-track proposal, Google said last week, "The FTC raises some interesting ideas, and we look forward to learning more about what Do-Not-Track could look like."
Hachamovitch he expects the tracking protection feature will be rolled out with Microsoft's IE9 browser early next year.
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Jack Marshall was a staff writer and stats editor for ClickZ News from 2007 until August 2011.
March 19, 2014