Many of the country's largest companies lashed out at Microsoft this week, claiming that its decision to turn on the "Do Not Track" privacy feature in Internet Explorer 10 would "harm consumers, hurt competition, and undermine American innovation."
In a letter addressed to three top Microsoft executives, including CEO Steve Ballmer and the company's top lawyer, Brad Smith, companies ranging from McDonalds and General Motors to Intel and Visa demanded a sit-down with Microsoft to discuss Internet Explorer 10 (IE10).
IE10 is slated to ship alongside the Windows 8 operating system on Oct. 26. Although Microsoft has promised to also release a version of the browser suitable for Windows 7, it has consistently refused to give a timetable.
"ANA's Board of Directors is very upset that the choice being made by Microsoft is one that will ultimately threaten to reduce the vast array of free content and services available to consumers," the advertisers claimed. The Association of National Advertisers (ANA) is an industry lobbying group.
Microsoft drew the ire of online advertisers -- and praise from many privacy advocates -- when in late May it announced that IE10 would have the "Do Not Track" (DNT) option switched on by default. Later, it backed away slightly, saying users could turn it off when they were first told of the feature as Windows went through its setup paces.
Do Not Track is a browser feature that signals whether a user wants online advertisers and websites to track his or her movements. Four of the five major browsers -- Firefox, Internet Explorer, Opera and Safari -- can send a DNT signal. Google has pledged that Chrome will support DNT by year's end.
"When presented as a default 'on,' by design Microsoft is no longer creating a choice of whether or not data about consumers will be tracked," the ANA's letter continued. "Rather, Microsoft appears determined to stop the collection of Web viewing data. That is unacceptable."
The letter was the harshest criticism yet by the advertising industry of Do Not Track in general and Microsoft's position with IE10 specifically. The ANA used phrases like "fundamentally bad for consumers," "undermines consumer interest" and "cheat society" in its missive.
Essentially, the ANA argued that if advertisers could not track users on the Web -- and then use that information to deliver targeted online ads to them -- the Internet as it's now known would vanish. IE10's on-by-default stance threatened that tracking.
"Microsoft's decision to block collection and use of information by default will significantly reduce the diversity of Internet offerings and potentially cheat society of the robust offerings that are currently available," the ANA said.
Privacy proponents hit back.
"The online advertising industry has dropped its facade of negotiating Do Not Track in good faith," said Jonathan Mayer, one of two Stanford researchers who devised the HTTP header concept used by browsers to signal a user's DNT decision. "This week's letters to Microsoft and W3C leadership are part of that."
The Worldwide Web Consortium (W3C) is a standards-setting group that is trying to finalize DNT's implementation. The group is meeting this week in Amsterdam to continue discussions. Mayer is active in the W3C discussions.
Other privacy advocates were even tougher on the ANA and its demand that Microsoft reverse course.
"In recent days, we have suddenly seen an all-out blitz of attacks on Do Not Track, both in Washington and Silicon Valley, decrying Do Not Track as a disaster that would destroy the advertising-supported Web," said Leslie Harris and Justin Brookman of the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) in a Wednesday blog post.
Harris is the CDT's president and CEO, while Brookman is the advocacy group's director of consumer privacy.
Mayer noticed the uptick in rhetoric, too. "In recent weeks industry trade groups have turned to obstructionism and vitriol within the W3C multi-stakeholder process," Mayer said in an email reply to questions. "Outside the W3C, they've placed negative coverage, penned misleading op-eds and lobbied Republicans in Congress to challenge the FTC."
The ANA's blast against IE10 made some suspect it had been the tipping point. "It is possible that this uproar stems entirely from Microsoft's decision in June to aggressively steer its users to turn on Do Not Track during install," said Harris and Brookman.
Not so, countered an online ad executive.
Steve Minichini, who leads the interactive marketing group at the advertising agency TargetCast, disagreed that IE10 had been a trigger for any recent anti-DNT blitz on the part of advertisers. "We've been talking about this for years," Minichini said in a Wednesday interview.
He acknowledged that the debate had heated up, but blamed Microsoft. "The main reason there's so much conversation is the principle of it," said Minichini, referring to IE10's on-by-default setting. "IE10 will not have a big foothold in the market at first, but as the years roll on, year after year, it will grow. [Microsoft's move] is just a marketing strategy to grab headlines."
Some would agree with Minichini's point: Many Microsoft watchers and analysts have interpreted Microsoft's decision to push users to DNT as a way for it to differentiate the browser from competitors.
Microsoft is on somewhat shaky ground with IE; the browser has lost share for years, although that decline has slowed during 2012, according to California-based Net Applications, which on Monday said all versions of IE accounted for 53.6% of those used in September. (Irish metrics firm StatCounter, however, says that IE has shrunk to just 32.7%, second behind Google's Chrome.)
IE10 has a negligible share: Neither Net Applications nor StatCounter have begun tracking it.
It's unclear how the W3C will, or even if it will, resolve its differences on IE10 to, for instance, either demand that websites honor its DNT signal or allow them to ignore it.
Harris and Brookman of the CDT wondered where it would end, too. But one possibility would kick off what they called a "privacy arms race" pitted with tit-for-tat responses by advertisers and Microsoft to block, unblock and re-block DNT.
"The result would be turning the online ecosystem into an ever-escalating war between privacy interests and advertisers, precisely the war that a negotiated Do Not Track setting was designed to avoid," said Harris and Brookman.
Others have noticed a change in advertisers' tone in the most recent DNT discussions. Last week, Federal Trade Commission chairman Jon Leibowitz told the Wall Street Journal that the industry "appears to be backing off from its commitments" made last February.
The FTC backs Do Not Track, but Leibowitz has not expressly thrown his weight behind Microsoft and IE10.
Microsoft on Wednesday declined to address the ANA's allegations, instead repeating a previous statement that said, "Our approach to DNT in Internet Explorer 10 is part of our commitment to privacy by design and putting people first."
In an op-ed piece in Adweek last month, however, Rik van der Kooi, Microsoft's top ad executive, said critics were losing perspective. "Instead of debating whether DNT is 'on' or 'off,' we should redouble our efforts as an industry and educate consumers about how advertising pays for the free Web experience we all now enjoy," van der Kooi wrote.
It may be difficult to get the two sides -- the ad industry and privacy-first advocates -- to agree when words like "outrage," "bizarre" and "unacceptable" are bandied by the parties.
The ANA, which did not reply to a Computerworld request to make someone available for an interview, asked Microsoft for a face-to-face meeting between executives. "We respectfully suggest an immediate dialogue with key Microsoft executives prior to the anticipated release of Internet Explorer 10," the trade group said in its letter.
Harris and Brookman had hope for a resolution. "At the end of the day, privacy advocates will have to settle for something less than they would like in an ideal world [and] advertisers must honor their commitment to comply with users' Do Not Track instructions," they said.
The debate isn't limited to the U.S., as European regulators have also weighed in on DNT, and expressed support for Microsoft's position on IE10.
"[The advertising industry] now stands in open defiance of policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic and, more importantly, the tens of millions of users who have enabled Do Not Track in their browser," said Mayer. "[But] the primary effect of their efforts has been to call more attention to Do Not Track."
"We're going to continue to do what we do, which is to put privacy at the top of mind," countered ad exec Minichini, who clearly would like users to run any browser but IE10. "Consumers are empowered by the browsers they choose. But Microsoft is forcing DNT on the consumer population, something we're strongly against, and something we think consumers will be strongly against."
Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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