Microsoft Does the Right Thing with Default 'Do Not Track'

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Microsoft has rattled online advertisers by enabling the ‘Do Not Track’ technology by default in the Windows 8 Release Preview. Despite what the “trackers” might think, though, the “trackees” will appreciate that Microsoft is being more proactive about protecting privacy, and putting control in the hands of the users.

In a blog post explaining the decision, Microsoft Chief Privacy Officer Brendon Lynch acknowledges that online advertising is important to the Internet economy, and that consumers receive value in the form of a more relevant, personalized Web experience. In the end, though, Lynch states, “We believe that consumers should have more control over how information about their online behavior is tracked, shared and used.”

I'm an advocate of online tracking for a more personalized Web experience...on my terms.
To be clear, I am not sold on ‘Do Not Track’ as a solution. Rules only work for rule-abiding organizations, and the shady companies that might use my data for less scrupulous purposes are not likely to honor the ‘Do Not Track’ flag from my browser. The technology does at least give users some say in if or how their Web surfing habits are monitored, but it is not a silver bullet for protecting online privacy.

An article in AdWeek suggests that the default ‘Do Not Track’ may backfire and also cause otherwise compliant organizations to ignore the ‘Do Not Track’ flag from Internet Explorer. The article quotes Stu Ingis, general counsel of the Digital Advertising Alliance (DAA), saying, "In my view, most websites will ignore it. They aren't going to put themselves out of business.”

In spite of the opposition from organizations like the DAA, the move by Microsoft is simply the right thing to do. Using a default opt-out approach solves one of my fundamental complaints about ‘Do Not Track’. Most implementations of ‘Do Not Track’ put the burden on the individual user to A) realize that the tracking activity is going on; B) decide to take action to prevent that activity; and, C) figure out where the controls are to enable ‘Do Not Track’ in their Web browser.

The default assumption should be that users would like their privacy respected, and prefer not to be tracked unless explicit permission is granted. Legitimate advertisers and online destinations shouldn’t have any problem explaining up front how and why they intend to use the data they gather, and giving users an opportunity to grant permission for the tracking to occur.

IT admins should also welcome Microsoft’s decision to enable ‘Do Not Track’ by default. Businesses don’t want the online activities of users monitored or tracked. IBM recently banned the use of Siri by employees over concerns that Apple retains the queries and interactions spoken to the virtual personal assistant.

Microsoft may have ruffled some feathers with advertisers, but it should be commended for having the courage to put the privacy of individual users first. If the monitoring activities aren’t providing enough reciprocal value to entice users to voluntarily opt-in, then there’s a larger issue. Perhaps advertisers need to stop and consider why they’re so concerned about giving users a choice in the matter.

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