eBrandz Blog

Tracking online users’ footsteps becomes a contentious issue

Microsoft and Google are engaged in an intense high-stakes game of brinkmanship over the controversial issue of advertisers tracing footsteps of users across the Web. The battle is getting intense over how exactly to implement the policy of a soon-to-be-released ‘Do Not Track’ Web browser button, which will opt users out of data collection on sites across each participating ad network.

After several years of compromises and skirmishes, Do Not Track seemed to have a sizable quorum behind it. In fact, the proposal in this regard is backed by almost all the major browser makers currently, the Obama administration, as well as almost 90 percent of the country’s ad networks and publishers, comprising Google, Yahoo and AOL. And here is where it is going to get sticky: Last week Microsoft announced that it would be the first browser maker to activate the option as the default setting in its next Internet Explorer version, called IE10.

That literally flew in the face of a well-crafted, albeit fragile compromise struck between the online advertising networks and privacy advocates. Though the latter feel users would be better served by opting them automatically in to ‘Do Not Track’, according to the advertisers, they would be ready only to ‘Do Not Track’ in case of ‘off’ the default setting. The standards-setting World Wide Web Consortium’s working group last week affirmed its earlier agreement that DNT should be turned on only if a user decides to do so deliberately. W3C, in other words, is backing the very opposite of what Microsoft has already planned for the new IE version. That clash is bound to put the top advertising networks in a bind.

If Microsoft goes ahead with IE10 (with DNT turned on by default), that would make it a non-compliant browser. So do the ad networks still honor requests from IE users not to be tracked? According to sources, no agreement was reached among Do Not Track’s key players. Many advertisers and publishers including Google, Yahoo and others contended that they shouldn’t. Their position: A default setting was not really representative of user’s choice.

Most of them including advertisers clearly wish to ignore Do Not Track requests on IE10. Do Not Track (DNT) participation is voluntary. However, once a company chooses to sign on (as Google already has) – the Federal Trade Commission will enforce compliance. Players like Google that have signed the industry’s agreement might well land in regulatory conundrum if the FTC feels ignoring IE10’s DNT requests is tantamount to false advertising. Microsoft meanwhile noted that so far the W3C working group had been made no decision, and added that it would continue to work with the relevant organization on the particular issue. Brendon Lynch, its Chief Privacy Officer was quoted as saying in a written statement:

“While we respect the W3C’s perspective, we believe that a standard should support a ‘privacy by default’ choice for consumers.”

A company spokesman refused to speculate on whether it would keep Do Not Track feature of IE10 on by default even if it’s considered be non-compliant with official specification of Do Not Track. The irony of it is that Google and Microsoft each seem to play on both sides of this debate – as both create popular browsers and also have significant online ad networks.