Last week, Microsoft announced that Internet Explorer 10 within Windows 8 will ship with “Do-Not-Track” as the default on the browser. For the uninitiated, Do-Not-Track is a feature that allows a user to tell websites they’re visiting to not track where they’ve been and what websites they’ve visited. This information is a treasure trove of information to advertising networks, including Google, who like to know where you’ve been so they can serve ads that are relevant to you. This is an important milestone, as Do-Not-Track has been a heated topic of discussion over the past several years, including Congressional attempts to regulate and impose Do-Not-Track on the industry.
This is a great example of a market demand, and a solution being supplied without the need for government intervention. Microsoft saw that many users were wary of their information being used by markets, so they came up with a solution that no other company had done before—made Do-Not-Track the default setting. Of course users information can still be tracked and stored—the Do-Not-Track button just tells websites that the user of this particular browser would not like their information to be used—but oftentimes the information is still being stored. But in an agreement made last year, the ad industry decided to begin honoring Do-Not-Track, with the understanding that the option would be just that—optional. Now making it the default on Internet Explorer has alarmed those who make their profits off the information that will no longer be able to be used by advertisers.
This has interesting ramifications for consumers, advertisers, Microsoft and their competitors. For consumers, if Do-Not-Track is turned on, this means that advertisements on websites they visit will no longer be tailored to the interests of a user. If for instance, the consumer just visited Jcrew.com, they might have previously been served ads for Gap or Banana Republic. Now, with no record of where a consumer has been, ad networks like Google will have no way of knowing which ads might be most relevant to the consumer. This makes Google (or any other ad network) much less likely to be able to serve targeted ads, thus making the ad network much less valuable to advertisers.
When it comes to Microsoft’s competitors in the browser business, it throws down a serious gauntlet. The decision by Microsoft has sent shockwaves through the industry, with a committee at the World Wide Web Consortium saying that with this new setting, it will make Internet Explorer not in compliance with industry standards. It’s also upset digital marketers (of which Microsoft is also), who say that the agreement came to last year was under the conditions that Do-Not-Track would not be the default option. But this step shows that Microsoft takes the privacy of their consumers seriously, and makes it seem that anything less than this standard (Do-Not-Track as default) is not as good as could be done for the consumer. This puts Firefox, Safari and Chrome in a tough position, as they now have their backs up against the wall in explaining why they’re not following suit.
Why wouldn’t other browsers want to offer Do-Not-Track as the default as well? There’s a lot to be lost in not tracking consumers. The data that’s collected on someone’s browsing history is a treasure trove of information to advertisers, something that most would argue is relatively benign. The information is anonymous, with it being nearly impossible to actually attach an identity to the information being collected. Most advertisers don’t really care who you are—it’s a data point that isn’t that valuable.
Still, many consumers are wary of being tracked, which is why Microsoft is answering the markets call for this new feature. If a user wants to be tracked, they can change the Do-Not-Track feature off. If they don’t, they can leave the feature on. As many users are less tech savvy than others, Microsoft must have found that leaving Do-Not-Track as the default was easier and more convenient for its customers, which is who any business must serve if they want to remain in business. Whether or not other browsers follow suit remains to be seen, but many would agree that Microsoft’s move is a step in the right direction for giving its customers what they want.
Zack Christenson writes on digital tech policy for the American Consumer Institute