Internet users have been becoming more aware of their privacy concerns in recent months. Nobody really finds the idea of their every move being tracked by an anonymous outside group to be a pleasant one. This has gotten such attention that the call for “Do Not Track” settings in browsers is being answered. Microsoft took things a step further with Internet Explorer 10 and made their users’ experiences private from the start.
Unfortunately, they have just been shot down. Since IE10 is still in its beta stage Microsoft will have no trouble changing things around in time for release but this early move did manage to draw the attention of advertisers thanks to its inclusion in the Windows 8 Release Preview. Only days after the web exploded with news that Microsoft had made such an astonishingly user friendly decision, the Do Not Track specification was revised to include a requirement that such a setting has to be enabled explicitly by any user to be considered valid.
This means that even if Microsoft chooses to keep their settings just the way they are, websites will be able to ignore the DNT flag based on the fact that the browser is not compliant with specifications. This is not, after all, a system that impedes tracking so much as a way for users to request that they not be tracked. Cooperating sites will be able to advertise their compliance and therefore gain some respect (and hopefully traffic or business) from users.
As I understand things, if Microsoft were to set DNT by default in all of their browsers on installation then a site would be able to track all IE users however they wanted while still advertising compliance with DNT specifications. There would be no legal grounds for objecting to either the practice or the site’s compliance claim.
This part of the new revision is filed as the “Explicit Consent Requirement”. This states that “An ordinary user agent MUST NOT send a Tracking Preference signal without a user’s explicit consent.” A lack of expressed preference is of course about the same thing as offering permission to track. The examples of explicit consent that are used in this draft do seem to leave Microsoft with the option of prompting users to confirm that they prefer not to be tracked on the first instance of opening their browser, but for now it remains ambiguous.
There is pretty much no chance now that Internet Explorer 10, whether in Metro or its Desktop version, will come pre-configured for privacy. This might mean there is an educational campaign ahead of us to raise awareness of the problem. It could mean much simpler and more obvious control of privacy settings in IE. It could also amount to nothing since Microsoft got a fair amount of good press for their initial move and now has an excuse to drop something controversial. Even if that happens, they get a lot of credit in my book for being the first to make the attempt.
In the meantime all we can do is look for other means to protect internet privacy more generally, especially among those who aren’t aware enough of the situation already to take a hand in protecting themselves.