“Do Not Track” In Your Browser? Microsoft Introduces New Tracking Protection

As discussion heats up around the FTC’s “Do Not Track” proposals, Microsoft has added its voice to the debate. Yesterday Microsoft unveiled a new Internet Explorer 9 feature, called Tracking Protection Lists, which promises to empower users to control what third-party sites can track them when they’re online.

Here’s the issue: Most of us share information with websites beyond those we see in our address bar. This is because websites can prompt our browser to connect to other servers and exchange information behind the scenes. This enables profiling, behavioral advertising, and other sorts of data collection some may find objectionable.

Microsoft’s Tracking Protection List feature could help shield users from these practices—if they choose. The feature allows users to create a list of web addresses within Internet Explorer (for example, those of known behavioral ad networks). Referencing this list, Internet Explorer will refuse to initiate a connection with any address listed. Users can subscribe to lists maintained by trusted organizations, making the process all that easier. In short, when used properly, this tool gives Internet Explorer users a higher degree of control while browsing online.

User empowerment tools like the Tracking Protection List are an important part of progress on online privacy. There are a number of advantages to this approach. For example, the government isn’t maintaining a list of undesirable sites (a troubling practice) or enforcing technical standards and users don’t have to rely on third-party sites to respect a “Do Not Track signal.” However, there are still important details to be worked out. We don’t yet know whether blocking certain servers will disrupt the browsing experience, how websites will prompt users to alter their lists, or whether trustworthy lists will be developed.

In sum, this is an excellent contribution by Microsoft in the wake of the FTC’s Report. Microsoft seems to have seriously considered important fundamental principles like Privacy by Design and Transparency. The Tracking Protection List has potential to empower users to make strong, persistent decisions to prevent tracking.

CDT encourages browser vendors and other stakeholders to continue exploring easy-to-use, consistent, and transparent mechanisms for consumers to make informed decisions about their privacy online.

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