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Microsoft's default Do Not Track not dead yet

Microsoft's plan to have the Do Not Track cookie preference turned on by default in Internet Explorer 10 has hit a pothole, but it's not out of gas yet.

Microsoft wants Windows 8's Internet Explorer 10 to come with Do Not Track activated by default -- but that may not happen.

(Credit: Microsoft)

The news sounded bad for Microsoft. Barely six days after the company announced an aggressive stance on blocking advertisers from tracking you in the coming Internet Explorer 10, a new standards draft from the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) appeared to kill the plan.

Except the new standards for the Do Not Track (DNT) browser header did nothing of the sort.

Microsoft's Chief Privacy Officer Brendon Lynch told CNET in a statement, "We are engaged with the W3C, as we are with many international standards bodies. While we respect the W3C's perspective, we believe that a standard should support a privacy by default choice for consumers."

For its part, the W3C has acknowledged that the DNT standards draft is just that -- a work-in-progress draft. Aleecia McDonald, a co-chair of the W3C Tracking Protection Working Group, wrote in the minutes from the meeting during which the draft was written that, "it will be quite a while before we have a final recommendation with which to comply or not. As I posted before, until there is a final recommendation, there is no way for a user agent (or anyone else) to be complying or not complying: there simply is no published recommendation yet."

In this context, "user agent" refers to the browser itself, and not the person using the browser.

At the very least, the standards draft reveals the difficulty that DNT faces in widespread adoption. While Microsoft has taken an aggressive stance toward protecting the privacy of people using Internet Explorer, other organizations are struggling to find a way to not upset advertisers.

"The development of cross-industry DNT standards is still ongoing, but it's clear that a successful framework will require cooperation from all stakeholders. To deliver on its promise, a browser-based DNT feature requires recognition and technical support from the companies engaged in tracking. Otherwise, it's akin to shouting in a crowded room in which no one is listening," , said Chris Babel, the CEO of TRUSTe, of which Microsoft is a client.

Meanwhile, the makers of Firefox wrote in a June 5 update to a blog post from last week that their preference is to split the difference. Mentioning but not linking to several academic studies that found that some people like targeted ads, Mozilla's lead privacy engineer Sid Stamm and global privacy and public policy leader Alex Fowler said, "Taken together, we believe the right starting point for a DNT system is a default of preference unknown."

CNET reported earlier that Microsoft was facing pushback from the W3C on its plan to turn on DNT by default, based on an analysis by Wired.

McDonald did acknowledge, in the same clarification, that she feels she "accurately captured the consensus of the group." But given Microsoft's stated position on a default DNT, it's hard to imagine Redmond not going forward with its plan.

DNT is a browser header that, when activated, requests tracking cookies to not follow you as you go from one Web site to the next. A small but growing number of sites have agreed to implement it, including Twitter and a handful of advertisers. However, the vast majority of sites have yet to respect it, and only Internet Explorer, Firefox, and Safari have implemented it as a option.

The Microsoft plan for IE10 is to have DNT on by default. Currently, it's off by default in all three browsers.

A key point in the draft specification states that, "an ordinary user agent MUST NOT send a Tracking Preference signal without a user's explicit consent," where "user agent" means "browser." What that means is that the specification calls for browsers not to make a Do Not Track determination of any kind. Although this isn't probable, it is nevertheless possible that the W3C could call for browser makers to introduce a Do Not Track choice screen, or some variation, that appears when a person installs the browser for the first time.

Updated at 5:35 p.m. PST on June 7, 2012, with statement from Mozilla.

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