Redmond, Washington -- Attempting to safeguard itself in advance, software monopolists Microsoft on Tuesday announced that its next version of its popular Internet Explorer browser will include a novel technology that can block third-party firms from tracking a user's activity on the Web.
The software maker's announcement comes just less than a week after the Federal Trade Commission demanded the creation of a “Do-Not-Track" mechanism that would protect users' privacy online, as part of a preliminary report outlining ways to improve consumer privacy online, that would allow consumers to choose whether they want to be tracked as they surf the Web. Microsoft's innovative tracking protection feature will be available on Internet Explorer 9 version, which is expected to be available early next year.
Many online companies track consumers on the Web so they can cater ads to them based on their preferences. The FTC's proposal is meant to recall the popular “Do Not Call” registry administered by the agency to block marketing calls. Do-not-track technologies, however, would not be a list or registry but would be technology a user voluntarily signs up for that blocks companies from collecting information on what sites a user visits and what they do on those Web sites.
“Today, consumers contribute information with more Web sites than the ones they see in the address bar in their browser," said Dean Hachamovitch, Microsoft's corporate vice president of Internet Explorer. "This is inherent in the design of the Web and simply how the web works, and it has potentially unintended consequences."
“Some consumers today have been very sensitive that they have privacy concerns, like being unclear about what information is being shared and how it is used as they browse,” said Peter Cullen, Microsoft's chief privacy strategist.
“Consumers understand that they have a relationship with the site they visit directly, whose address is clearly visible to them,” Cullen said.
“The modern Web though means that websites include content from many other sites as well," he said. "These 'third-party' sites are in position to potentially track consumers, via cookies and other technology mechanisms."
The tracking protection feature, specifically the IE9 browser will open “a new browser mechanism for consumers to opt-in and exercise more control over their browsing information,” Hachamovitch, said in a blog post.
Microsoft's “Tracking Protection List” attribute, which consumers will have to turn on, consists of Web addresses such as msdn.com that the browser will visit (or “call”) only if the consumer proactively visits them directly by clicking on a link or typing their address. The tracking protection feature Microsoft unveiled is different from what the FTC and some privacy advocates have proposed.
He added during a Webcast announcing the new feature that it provides a balanced approach between protecting the needs of consumers and the online industry.
“This is a step in the right direction, but we still need new privacy laws in the United States that reflect the 21st century digital world we are living in,” said James Steyer, CEO of Common Sense Media, which advocates for child safety on the web and in the media. “We hope this is a sign that the industry is taking the online privacy of consumers -- especially kids -- more seriously than they have been and that they will do the right thing and work with policymakers on privacy legislation that puts enforceable consumer protections in place.”
Microsoft's tracking protection tool gives users control over which site elements can track your activity during a browsing session. Green ones in this shot can, while the red cannot. (Credit: Screenshot by Josh Lowensohn/CNET)
Susan Grant, director of consumer protection for the Consumer Federation of America, commended Microsoft for taking a “positive step forward” to give consumers more control over whether they want to be tracked. She noted that her group first proposed a list approach when it originally called for a “do-not-track” system in 2007.
Microsoft mentioned that the tracking protection feature will not be on by default when it arrives next year. Users will need to opt-in to activate it, as well as seek out lists of sites, which will not ship with the browser once it is released. So far, Microsoft's IE9 beta has been downloaded in excess of 15 million times since its release back in September.
Microsoft's Internet Explorer is by far the most widely used web browser in the United States, enjoying more than 58 percent of the Internet browser market, according to the latest statistics from Net Applications, followed by Mozilla's Firefox, Google's Chrome and Apple's Safari.