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Microsoft drops Do Not Track default from Internet Explorer

New language in W3C standard twisted its arm

Microsoft has reversed its position on the contentious Do Not Track (DNT) browser feature, saying Internet Explorer will no longer send DNT signals to websites by default.

"Put simply, we are updating our approach to DNT to eliminate any misunderstanding about whether our chosen implementation will comply with the W3C standard," Microsoft chief privacy officer Brendon Lynch said in a Friday blog post.

Redmond introduced Do Not Track in IE9, without much controversy. But beginning with IE10 – which shipped to coincide with the launch of Windows 8 in October 2012 – users who chose "Express Settings" the first time they launched IE had the DNT feature enabled automatically.

The move proved unpopular, particularly with the online advertising industry but also with the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) itself, which held that enabling DNT by default subverted the intent of the spec.

Yahoo! went as far as to say it would ignore IE's DNT signals outright, saying the automatic setting would "degrade the experience of the majority of users."

The criticism didn't dissuade Microsoft, however, and DNT remains the default in Express Settings for current builds of IE11. But Lynch said that will now change, effective immediately.

What prompted the about-face is new language in the latest version of the W3C's DNT spec. Lynch called attention to a single line in the new draft, which reads, "In the absence of user choice, there is no tracking preference expressed." It's because of this line, Lynch said, that DNT will now ship disabled by default in Microsoft's browsers – including both IE and the new Project Spartan.

"Without this change, websites that receive a DNT signal from the new browsers could argue that it doesn't reflect the users' preference, and therefore, choose not to honor it," Lynch said.

Legacy Express Settings won't carry over to new versions of the browsers, either. Lynch said users will be asked to specify their preference for DNT when setting up a new PC or device for the first time, and when upgrading to a new version of Windows or IE.

Not that Microsoft thinks there was anything wrong with the way it was handling DNT before, mind you.

"We said in 2012 that browser vendors should clearly communicate to consumers whether the DNT signal is turned off or on, and make it easy for them to change the setting," Lynch wrote. "We did that for IE 10 and IE 11. And we're continuing to do so with future versions of our browsers."

Whether DNT actually offers that much to users, meanwhile, is debatable. Yahoo! dropped support for the tech from all of its websites last year, saying the standards were too murky to be useful.

"Right now, when a consumer puts Do Not Track in the header, we don't know what they mean," Yahoo!'s privacy team blogged at the time. "Privacy is not a one size fits all thing." ®

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