Microsoft’s Inner Conflict With Privacy

This article from The Wall Street Journal offers a fascinating glimpse into some inner workings at Microsoft. The short version of the story: the IE team was building in some pretty powerful anti-tracking technology into IE 8.0; Microsoft’s ad business got wind of it; the functionality got quashed or crippled. Microsoft's ad group saw the privacy controls as a significant threat to their business: namely, that curbing data collection reduces the effectiveness of advertising. The article notes:

“When Microsoft released the browser in its final form in March 2009, the privacy features were a lot different from what its planners had envisioned. The feature, called InPrivate Filtering, isn’t turned on by default, and resets to OFF every time the browser closes down."

According to the article, the two sides faced off, and Microsoft “convened a four-hour meeting…to allow outside organizations to voice their concerns, including the Interactive Advertising Bureau, the Online Publishers' Association and the American Association of Advertising Agencies.” Sounds like a pretty stacked deck. What about organizations representing the privacy side, such as EPIC or EFF?

Microsoft’s CPO was involved. But I wonder where the Trustworthy Computing (TWC) team was in all this? Here’s an excerpt from TWC’s  privacy page:

“Microsoft believes that its customers have the right to control their personal information, have the right to be left alone, and have the right to a trusted experience in which they can rely on Microsoft technologies, services, and solutions.”

Now we have Microsoft deciding that one group’s objective of tracking you by installing literally thousands of tracking files took precedence over another group’s focus on empowering users to defend against these practices.

I remember a discussion I had about 5 years ago with the Chief Privacy Officer of a major financial institution (one still standing!) on this very topic. This CPO actually reported into the Marketing department, and she was able to educate them that privacy is not the enemy of marketers.

Microsoft really missed an opportunity here. The concerns over tracking are real, and growing. Moreover, this is an area the FTC and Congress are actively looking at (such as the bill proposed by Rep. Rick Boucher, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, and the Internet). In the meantime, it’s quite likely that someone will come along and develop a plug-in that offers this very same protection (probably for Firefox). Or perhaps Microsoft will resurrect the technology for its Security Essentials solution.