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Report: Microsoft Cut Privacy Features to Sell Ads in IE8

Aug 08, 20105 mins
Data and Information SecurityEnterprise ApplicationsInternet Explorer

Microsoft had innovation privacy features in IE8, but it chose ad money over privacy as a default.

Privacy by default, wouldn’t that be a nice change? Microsoft’s IE development team had designed innovative privacy features that would have been turned on by default to effectively help users avoid being tracked online. Sadly, as reported by the Wall Street Journal, Microsoft cut the IE8 privacy features to sell ads.

In early 2008, the Internet Explorer 8 development team, led by general manager Dean Hachamovitch, had privacy features like InPrivate Subscriptions. According to the WSJ, privacy groups were to compile “black listed” website addresses that would have been automatically blocked by InPrivate Subscriptions. Other privacy features would have limited third parties from easily tracking mouse clicks and other activity. Too bad, so sad for privacy when Microsoft executives found out that designers actually wanted to protect users. Microsoft had spent $6 billion on a Web-ad firm that would help it track and sell targeted ads. This reportedly triggered a heated debate between the two camps within Microsoft, going all the way up to CEO Steve Ballmer.

The WSJ reported, “At a meeting in the spring of 2008, Brian McAndrews, a Microsoft senior vice president who had been chief executive of aQuantive before Microsoft acquired it, complained to the browser planners. Their privacy plan, he argued, would disrupt the selling of Web ads by Microsoft and other companies.”

In the end, Microsoft included one feature, called InPrivate Filtering. However, it doubtfully functions as developers had hoped. WSJ stated that users must turned on the privacy settings every time they start up the browser. That is truly unfortunate for users who might expect that when they take the time and effort to setup a program, that the privacy setting would then be maintained by default. What IE8 offers seems to mainly benefit online advertisers and marketers as opposed to users.

In his blog post, Hachamovitch explained the balancing act between the ongoing issue of online privacy and tracking. “Because some of the technologies that can be used for tracking are also essential today for basic functionality, there is no ‘Just give me perfect privacy’ feature. The way different tracking and anti-tracking technologies interact can read like a Spy vs. Spy comic strip…Part of what makes online privacy tricky is that browsing the web is fundamentally an information exchange. Your web browser offers information in order to get information. That information can identify you. Often, that information is sent automatically for your convenience (like the languages you prefer to read) to tailor the content for you.”

Hachamovitch gives other tips for setting up “InPrivate Filtering” and “Block for me” automatic filtering. In a MSDN blog, IEInternals, Eric Law explains cookie controls.

The WSJ noted that Mr. McAndrews is no longer working for Microsoft. The software giant has another opportunity to act less in the interests of advertisers and more in the interest of users by applying default and robust privacy settings in the upcoming IE9. In 2008, the software development team designed software with built-in privacy features which would have served as a model for the rest of the industry. I hope in 2010, these developers (who are in touch with what Internet users actually want) will be allowed to go forward with their designs…instead of having their programs neutered.

IE8 has done some very good things since its launch, like block access to over 560 million sites that it determined were serving malware, or about 3 million blocks per day. Even that was questioned as to how many of those were legit. Microsoft has sued alleged click-fraud scammers. But there are dangers when the same company that makes your web browser also sell the ads you view inside of it. No browser is perfect, but more and more people (and businesses like IBM) are moving away from using IE as their browser and are instead using others like Firefox.

Whether it’s true or not, it’s said that people love to hate Microsoft. If it is true, IE9 offers a chance for the big M to turn it around and put privacy and security at the forefront by default. It is true that the average user will not take steps to setup privacy. Instead of making that the challenge, how about leaving directions for users to deactivate automatic privacy features if they choose to not want privacy as a defaulted option? It could possibly be as simple as unchecking a box that would otherwise leave the program on by default, much like Remote Assistance.

Will Microsoft choose ad money over privacy features again in IE9? Microsoft, if you set industry standards that privacy is a right by default, then others will follow.

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ms smith

Ms. Smith (not her real name) is a freelance writer and programmer with a special and somewhat personal interest in IT privacy and security issues. She focuses on the unique challenges of maintaining privacy and security, both for individuals and enterprises. She has worked as a journalist and has also penned many technical papers and guides covering various technologies. Smith is herself a self-described privacy and security freak.