Microsoft was listening last week when the Federal Trade Commission released its recommendations on protecting consumer privacy online. The FTC suggested a "Do Not Track" option that would allow users to opt out of being tracked while they surf the web.
Today, Microsoft announced that it would add a that feature to Internet Explorer 9. Generally, when you go online and visit a web site that site may put cookies on your browser. Those cookies enable that site to track where you go online. So, if you visit a website for people who suffer from depression, the site can share that information with advertisers who may in turn send you ads for drugs to fight depression.
Internet Explorer's new feature will block the cookies.
According to Dean Hachamovitch, the new feature is a bit like the Do Not Call List that prevents telemarketing firms from calling you. Microsoft's Corporate Vice President for Internet Explorer says the new feature will let users create a list of companies that they don't want to track them as they surf the web.
"As the user browses the web it will refer to this and either allow or block calls to these third party websites that are in position to track the consumer," he says.
Hachamovich says many users may not be certain which sites they want to block. But, he believes that consumer groups will create lists for consumers that they can plug into their browsers.
Privacy advocates gave Microsoft lukewarm praise. Jeff Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy thinks Microsoft is really just throwing a crumb to the FTC.
"Microsoft hopes that by allowing users to have some kind of greater control over who can collect consumer data that congress won't legislate and the federal trade commission won't regulate," Chester says.
Chester also notes that Microsoft itself collects enormous amounts of data from people who use its browser, online games, email and instant message services.
Yet, Microsoft is also getting heat from the advertising industry for going too far. Steve Sullivan of the Interactive Advertising Bureau, a trade group, says if a user goes to CNN.com and its ads come from a blocked outside website, the consumer won't see any ads. That may sound good to some, but Sullivan says that is how CNN and other sites support their content.
"It implies to the consumer that opting out of tracking is actually a function of opting out of advertising," he says. "But that's not the case, advertising is part of the economic model of the internet."
For its part, the FTC praised Microsoft's new "Do Not Track" feature. The Commission's Chairman Jon Liebowtiz says, "Microsoft deserves enormous credit for taking a critical step toward providing consumers with more choice about who can track their online browsing."
Liebowitz also says it's proof that it's possible to create technologies that let consumers take control of who follows them online.