Microsoft’s Do Not Track debacle

When it made Do Not Track its default, the software giant's advertisers got antsy

When it made DNT its default, the software giant’s advertisers got antsy

This story originally appeared in Feb. 25 special Privacy Issue of Marketing. Tickets for Marketing’s Understanding Privacy in 2013 half-day conference are still available.

A few days before writing this story, I opened the privacy settings on my web browser (Google Chrome) and enabled the “Do Not Track” setting.

Unlike the vast majority of internet users, I made a conscious decision not to see online ads determined by my browsing history.

For the record, I am a married male, 45, with no known medical conditions and a strong, possibly irrational, dislike of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Over the next few days, my web browsing produced a series of completely irrelevant display ads for dating sites, panty liners, robotic angioplasty… and the Leafs. The latter appeared within two clicks of reading a story about a rival—and markedly superior—team.

That would seem to indicate that Do Not Track (DNT) was performing as expected. Except during the same period I also received a significant amount of targeted advertising.

This was not entirely unexpected. A common consumer misperception is that enabling the DNT setting on a browser serves as a guarantee against seeing ads that reflect their web browsing history. But while the various constituencies ignore this suggestion at their peril, they are not legally obligated—for now anyway—to respect their wishes.

(A poster in one online forum likened setting a DNT flag informing a site you don’t want to be tracked to leaving your front door open, and then telling potential burglars you don’t want to be robbed.)

DNT is a complex, thorny issue that produces a wide range of opinion. Consumer advocates argue it is necessary in an age where vast amounts of consumer information swirl about the web. Others warn that if it becomes the de facto setting, it would mean the end of the web in its current incarnation (though I’m betting porn comes through unscathed).

The concept became a hot topic mid-way through last year when Microsoft ran afoul of the advertising community after announcing that it would make DNT the default setting on the latest version of its Internet Explorer web browser, IE 10.

The web quickly exploded with theories about Microsoft’s motivation: Was it an attempt to position IE as a more consumer-friendly browser to help it regain market share lost to rivals like Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox?

Others suggested it was a backhanded slap at Google, possibly hindering the ability of its rival to serve ads based on intimate consumer knowledge?

In a June 2012 post on the company’s blog, “Microsoft on the Issues,” chief privacy officer David Burt cited a study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project had found that 68% of respondents were “not okay” with targeted advertising.

“This sentiment, coupled with our commitment to privacy by design, led us to think deeply about how users can exercise their DNT choice in IE 10,” he wrote. “We ultimately concluded that the appropriate privacy-friendly default for DNT in IE 10 is ‘on.’”

Microsoft declined to be interviewed for this piece, but emailed this statement: “People overwhelmingly tell us they want more control over how their personal information is used online. They don’t want either their personal activity or their children’s shared without their permission. While ‘Do Not Track’ is a technology solution that’s still in its formative stages, it holds the promise of giving people greater choice and control of their privacy as they browse the web.”

While nobody disputes that DNT should be an option for consumers, the key issue in the debate is whether companies like Microsoft­—or Google or Mozilla for that matter—should be able to make the choice for consumers.

In theory, having a browser send a DNT signal to publishers and ad servers should eliminate what David Fraser, a privacy lawyer with the Halifax firm McInnes Cooper, calls the “creepy factor” of ads that seem to follow people as they move around the web.

The Privacy Roundtable: Big Data and Marketers

The move positions Microsoft as pro-consumer, but Fraser, who also blogs extensively on privacy matters at Canadian Privacy Law Blog, says he is “ambivalent” about what Microsoft has done.

“I question their motives, because there’s not a whole lot that Microsoft has done in the past that [has been done] simply because it’s the right thing to do,” says Fraser. “They’ve been lashing out at others in the market, particularly those that are dominant in the advertising industry, and I think this is kind of a way of sticking it to them under the guise of being privacy protective.”

An advocate of what he calls “informed choice,” Fraser says Microsoft has taken that option away from consumers by making DNT a default setting. “Setting it as the default, and then burying it among the gazillions of settings on IE, [Microsoft] is taking the choice away from the consumer and imposing a choice on them based on what it thinks is good for them,” he says.

The reality, however, is that there is currently no 11th commandment stating “Thou shalt not track,” which means that publishers and advertisers have no legal obligation to honour IE 10’s DNT setting.

That was precisely the response of the U.S. Digital Advertising Alliance (DAA), a coalition representing more than 5,000 companies including publishers. Under the DAA’s self-regulatory program, more than 1 trillion U.S. ad impressions—all bearing the AdChoices icon informing consumers they are seeing a behaviourally targeted ad—are served each month. (A similar program is in the works for Canada, see pg. 36.)

The DAA issued a statement in October calling the IE 10 settings an inappropriate standard for providing consumer choice and saying it would not sanction or penalize companies ignoring the do-not-track settings.

“Machine-driven do not track does not represent user choice: it represents browser-manufacturer choice,” thundered the DAA. “Allowing browser manufacturers to determine the kinds of information users receive could negatively impact the vast consumer benefits and Internet experiences delivered by DAA participants and millions of other web sites that consumers value.”

Publishing giant Yahoo piled on later that month, stating on a blog post: “Ultimately, we believe that DNT must map to user intent—not to the intent of one browser creator, plug-in writer, or third-party software service.”

Their message was preceded by an open letter to Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer from the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) in which it asked the company to reverse its decision. The letter said that making DNT the default setting would “undercut” the effectiveness of its members’ advertising and “drastically change” the online experience for consumers by reducing the content and offerings that advertising supports.

Noting that IE is used by approximately 43% of the U.S. population, the ANA said that if that percentage of American households were to be removed from the TV viewing audience, consumers collectively would suffer because television in its current form would no longer be viable. “The choice would not be one of advertising or no advertising; the choice would be one of advertising or no network television shows,” said the ANA.

Microsoft did not relent, however, and with the DAA not requiring its members to honour IE’s DNT setting, the upshot is that it hasn’t really accomplished anything beyond perhaps scoring a few PR points with consumers and earning the enmity of advertisers and agencies, says Andrew Casale, vice-president of strategy for Casale Media, an online advertising network that depends on the ability to target consumers on the behalf of clients.

“They can take the stance: ‘We will sacrifice revenue that would impact our ad business, which is somewhat optional anyway, if it means giving our users a safer experience,’” says Casale. “It doesn’t surprise me that they of all the companies in our space would do something like this.”

Illustration: Blair Kelly

There’s more! Read the full article in the Feb. 25 issue of Marketing. Subscribe today!

For more insight on online privacy and consumer expectation, check out Understanding Privacy in 2013: The New Rules of Engagement on Feb. 28. Tickets are still available

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