Microsoft has submitted its "do not track" browser technology to the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) for adoption as a industry standard.
The software giant's Tracking Protection technology – unveiled in December and due in the next version of Internet Explorer – is designed to let users of IE decide what information advertisers are allowed to learn about them during web browsing and internet searches.
Tracking Protection has been slotted into the IE9 release candidate that Microsoft made available on Thursday. The finished version of IE9 is expected soon.
Ryan Gavin, senior director of IE business and marketing, told The Reg at the IE9 RC launch that making Tracking Protection a W3C standard would help develop an interoperable approach to the problem. He said Microsoft is talking to other browser makers and advertisers about interoperability on do-not-track.
But Microsoft could be going it alone. The company's two biggest browser rivals, Mozilla and Google, have not only offered their own "do not track" technologies, they've taken entirely different approaches to getting them adopted.
Microsoft's Tracking Protection arrived after the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) said it's worried about the state of consumer privacy on the web.
The FTC outlined a framework and recommendations to protect privacy and impose some rules around the sharing of customers' data online. The FTC said industry efforts to self regulate were moving too slowly and proposed other measures, including a do not track mechanism with a simple opt-out procedure.
Microsoft's answer is Tracking Protection, but it's up to you to turn it on. IE9 will, by default, expose you to ads networks unless you update your browser to include Tracking Protection Lists. These are sites that you, the user, considers safe. The idea is to stop sites handing off your data to third parties tapped into that site. IIt's unclear whether you can opt-out of an entire ad network.
IE9 users can build their own lists or use lists from third parties. Announcing the IE9 RC, Microsoft named Privacy Choice, Easy list, Truste, and Abine as the first to deliver lists.
IE's competitors are taking a different approach on do-not-track.
Mozilla has proposed a system that dumps the idea of lists and employs an HTTP header. The header has been added to the latest Firefox beta, released this week.
Like IE9, Firefox 4 will expose you to the web's ad networks by default until you update your preferences. Once enabled, the HTTP header will be transmitted each time you are selected for third-party behavioral tracking and the site will be told you've opted out of tracking.
Mozilla said here that its goal was to make turning on the HTTP header "as easy as possible" through the Firefox UI. "An example could be a checking a box clearly labeled on the Firefox privacy pane," Mozilla said.
The open-source outfit is taking a bottoms-up approach for acceptance rather than going top-down through a standards-body. Besides putting the HTTP header in the Firefox 4 beta, Mozilla said that it's asking sites and advertisers to recognized the new header.
Mozilla Global Privacy and Public Policy Leader Alexander Fowler said: "We are also committed to working with the technical community to standardize the header across the industry."
Meanwhile, Google is not seeking the approval of a community or sanction from any standard body. In January, the web giant simply released an extension Chrome that stores users settings lodged with opt-out programs such as the Network Advertising Initiative and the Self-Regulatory Program for Online Behavioral Advertising. The idea is the browser doesn't have to rely on different cookies to track your preferences.
Assessing the state of play, Gavin told The Reg that online advertising has reached a tipping point on privacy. He compared it to the point email reached during the 2000s, when spam hit crisis point frustrating users and confounding companies trying to reach customers.
The email industry and advertisers response was online filters that struck a balance between commerce and junk and that let trusted mail through. The online advertising industry now needs to find a similar balance rather than completely block ads, Gavin said.
"The reality was higher quality emails made it into the inbox, the junk ended up in the junk box," Gavin said.
"That balance is what we are going to find - this balance of advertisers interests where some kind of tracking is a good thing and where we're also giving back control, because the reality is most consumers still don't know today how much info I'm giving up as they browse the web."
Just like with email, Microsoft again finds itself caught betwixt and between: it is not just a provider of technology to the ads networks and an operator of a search engine and numerous web properties that willingly suck in ads tracking services from third parties, millions of consumers use its software.
Oh, Microsoft also partners with Facebook, which historically has few qualms about sucking up and sharing your data with commercial entities on the web.
Gavin might be right about online ads having reached a tipping point in terms of needing to act, but have the companies involved arrived there too?
Mozilla and Google are going off in different directions while Microsoft has opened its playbook at the page that says: "Have Microsoft technology established as a standard then exploit market share".
And unlike the email world that Microsoft dominated last time, Microsoft, Mozilla and Google all have either the market share or growth that they can leverage to ensure their approach burrows into the web.
It's all too painful to watch. Just as Microsoft embraced the web with HTML in IE, developers and consumers will once gain be forced to pick the browser they build for or use most based on vendor politics. Only this time its their privacy that's at stake, not how a web site is built and displayed.
Among other RC updates is the ability to modify web searches in the browser's combined navigation and search box. You can now alter your search provider and swap between maps, video, news, and other genres of search. You can also press control SHIFT L to search a topic that you've pulled back without needing to cut and past a subject in to a fresh search window.
Other changes include the ability to create unlimited tabs taking up the full width of the windows and pin sites, the ability to drag, drop, and keep a web site open in your Windows 7 dock has now been extended to elements within a site so you can pin widgets within a site to your dock. ®