Congress, EU, Ally With Microsoft, Ask W3C To Allow Default "Do Not Track" Setting

Last month, Microsoft dropped a bombshell on advertisers -- its Internet Explorer 10 that ships with Windows 8 would ship with its "Do Not Track" setting enabled. Users would have to opt out of DNT by manually changing this setting if they wanted websites to track them. The DNT standard is still being debated, and compliance with it is voluntary, but even so, Microsoft's announcement made a lot of advertisers unhappy. This was reflected in changes the W3C (the World Wide Web Consortium) announced a few weeks later, when it stated that in order to be considered "in compliance" with DNT, all browsers must not set a DNT preference without the user's explicit consent. This perversely means Microsoft would be unable to claim it supported DNT -- the company's decision to activate the setting by default would leave it "non-compliant."

Normally, these kinds of issues are hashed out in technical communities the average person has never heard of. In this case, however, both Congress and now the EU have weighed in on the situation, both on the side of Microsoft. Last week, Congress urged the group to "make protection of consumer privacy a priority and support Microsoft’s announcement by endorsing a default Do Not Track setting."

Now, the EU has also backed Microsoft's proposal, though it calls on the W3C to mandate a standard that presents users with the option to enable/disable DNT at first install. "The standard should foresee that at the install or first use of the browser the owner should be informed of the importance of their DNT choice, told of the default setting and prompted or allowed to change that setting," Robert Madelin, who heads the European Commission's Information Society and Media Directorate-General, said in a Thursday letter (download PDF) to the W3C.

When the W3C released the newest draft of the standard, advertisers blasted what they saw as Microsoft's heavy-handed tactics. Bob Liodice, president and chief executive officer of the Association of National Advertisers, said Microsoft “acted irresponsibly through its unilateral action to embed ‘Do Not Track’ functionality into Internet Explorer 10 with a default setting in the ‘on’ position.”

Make no mistake, this is an all-out slugfest for advertising dollars. The little Google text ads that pop up when you visit a website or search the 'Net are just the tip of the iceberg -- the latest trend in advertising is so-called "real-time ads" that track what you're searching for as you search and immediately display results relevant to that inquiry. DNT threatens these ad streams because it would sharply restrict the sorts of data that could legally be collected from your browsing habits and sold. Companies are petrified that this might cripple revenue, Wired has responded by creating banner pages like the above that display before a page is rendered in IE10.

Ultimately, the W3C's quick response to Microsoft's DNT position makes it look like a consortium that's being run by advertising interests and is primarily focused on maintaining business relationships regardless of whether or not consumers are interested in being affiliated with (or advertised to) by the companies in question. Now that governments on both sides of the pond have weighed in, its up to the W3C to see if it'll soften its response -- or opt to continue playing shill for the advertising industry.