Microsoft’s upcoming Internet Explorer 8 will offer a new set of privacy features designed to give users more control over personal information, the company has revealed. The “InPrivate” feature will build in options for turning off history and cookie collection and will also allow users to see what external sites could access that data — and then disable them from doing so.
The move is drawing mixed reactions: While privacy advocates are cheering the easily implemented controls, advertisers are expressing concern the feature could create a significant roadblock to effective online ads, since many of them use data tracking technology.
Understanding the Options
The upcoming features are lumped into four categories. The first, “InPrivate Browsing,” is essentially an on-off switch for whether IE saves a record of the Web sites you visit and any cookies set or temporary files created during your surfing. The next, “Delete Browsing History,” takes the idea a step further. It’s a customizable control panel to specify that certain data be kept and other data be discarded.
The third and fourth categories are the ones drawing more debate: “InPrivate Blocking” and “InPrivate Subscriptions.” These let you identify and block specific content that has the ability to access and utilize your browsing history and other collected data.
“There is so-called ‘third-party’ content on Web sites, some of which can gather data about how you browse the Web. How do you know what that is, or how to control it?” Internet Explorer Program Manager Andy Zeigler writes in the IEBlog.
“The only way to ensure that your data is not disclosed is to block content and prevent communication to sites,” he proposes.
The issue, then, is that much of that blocked content will include ads — the primary source of income for many online businesses. Though add-on-style options already exist for ad blocking, this will be the first mainstream, browser-integrated solution. Because of that, some are worried the very foundation of effective e-commerce could be shattered.
“I think that with regard to anything that has to do with consumers perceiving that their privacy is being invaded, the marketer or the organization is going to suffer,” Deborah Moscardelli-Gray, associate professor of marketing at Central Michigan University, told the E-Commerce Times.
The question, then, is how to find the balance between consumer interest and advertiser interest.
“Most consumers are extremely uncomfortable with data being collected about them when they don’t know it’s being done or for what purpose,” Moscardelli-Gray noted.
For privacy experts, the question is an easy one: The consumer has the right to decide, even if it ultimately hurts the advertiser.
“Look, it’s the user’s computer. Users should have the right to make those decisions,” Mark Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, told the E-Commerce Times. “If the user wants to block advertising, they certainly should have the right to do so,” he said.
EPIC has been fighting for these types of controls for some time, Rotenberg indicated. The organization sees the ease-of-use — the very issue at the heart of the advertisers’ concern — as the biggest asset from a user rights perspective.
“The problem with privacy features that are developed for browser software is they typically require users to make a lot of decisions and stay on top of add-ons — for example, in Firefox. So we would prefer to see a strong privacy safeguard technique built into the browser, [and] that’s what Microsoft seems to have done here,” he noted.
While the advertising world struggles to find a new solution, privacy advocates are celebrating a win — and Microsoft is staying neutral on the topic. A spokesperson told The Washington Post the “InPrivate” features were not intended for ad blocking, though he conceded they could have that effect. The company did, however, point out that ads on many major publications — including the Post — still functioned normally, even with InPrivate Blocking enabled.
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