Microsoft has vowed to put an end to lengthy and confusing privacy controls and "give customers increased transparency and control over their data."
But in a sign that bad habits have not been fully unlearnt, the changes were announced in a 1,360-word blog post that is very long on explanation and dangerously short on detail.
"As we listened to the feedback, we came to appreciate that we could do more to meet our customers’ needs," says the company's deputy general counsel and former FTC Commissioner Julie Brill.
Nope, here it is: "While we publish significant information already, we’ve realized that customers want a simpler experience – information should be easier to find, easier to understand, and easier to act on through the tools we provide."
Yes, it should. It really should.
But to Microsoft's credit, somewhere hidden in the mountain of self-congratulatory words is a good idea: allow consumers to actually decide what information is gathered on their activity – and explain to them what is done with that data and why it is gathered in the first place.
In what could have been a 280-character tweet but ended up as a massive treatise, Microsoft said it would split data gathered into "required" and "optional." It will endeavor to explain why some data is required and will allow people to opt-out of optional data.
Examples of required data are: search terms, IP address, operating system. Somewhat weirdly the only example given of optional data is "data we collect about the pictures people are inserting into Word documents." Which all sounds great but it is somewhat hard to get past two issues:
- The changes outlined are cast as some kind of amazing leap of logic on Microsoft's part when they are in fact starkly obvious, commonsense controls that literally anyone could have come up with at any time in the past 20 years.
- It is still all theoretical: the company promises to "increase transparency" and give clear explanations for every bit of data it grabs, as well as allow users to easily and simply opt-in and opt-out of them. But the proof, as ever, is in the pudding. And there is no pudding right now; just a promise to make a pudding at some point.
One example: "We are working on providing additional configuration options that will give customers more control over the collection of data that’s required for certain features or functions." Which to be honest sounds very Facebooky - and that's not a compliment.
We're not entirely sure why Microsoft felt the need to tell everyone what it is going to do, in vague terms, rather than just do it. Normally, outlining some kind of vision comes with a request for users to provide feedback. But not here: Microsoft is quite clear that it has listened as much as it wishes to, has made some decisions, and now you are all going to be happy about it. Whenever it comes.
Even the token effort for feedback isn't one. "If there's something you think we can do to make it easier for you to take control of your privacy, please tell us about it here," the post says, linking to a webpage that forces you to go through Microsoft-defined responses that only able you to ask questions rather than give specific feedback.
Don't guess us wrong: it's great that Microsoft is promising to actually provide real privacy controls and promising to make them clear and easy to understand and effect. But if this were a presentation, the feedback would be: great, but there is literally no detail in here. Do some mock-ups and come back next week.
Presumably, the reasons the blog post exists at all is to contrast Microsoft's approach with that of Facebook, whose F8 developer conference kicked off this morning with CEO Mark Zuckerberg providing an offensively vague promise to take privacy more seriously.
"The future is private," said a vast screen behind The Zuck: a scene so ridiculous (given that Facebook's entire business model is built on ignoring personal privacy) that it could come straight from spoof tech bro comedy Silicon Valley.
Gaslighting Facebook style
Like Apple, Microsoft is clearly banking on being the not-Facebook and the not-Google and grabbing customers by promising to be hip to privacy concerns. But, the truth is that it is not rocket science.
If Microsoft was serious in its intent for consumer control, rather than trying to gauge just how much it can scale back its data gathering in order to differentiate its products, it could have done all this years ago.
In other words: we'll wait until we see it, thanks. ®