Microsoft scrapped IE8 privacy to woo advertisers

Microsoft backtracked on a plan to give users a simple and effective way to protect their privacy in Internet Explorer 8, after the company's marketing men decided they'd rather make money selling advertising.

Back in 2008, product developers working on Microsoft's IE8 web browser intended to design the software so that it would automatically thwart the tools commonly used by sites to track users' web surfing habits. According to the original plans reported in yesterday's Wall Street Journal, users would have had to deliberately 'opt out' of secure browsing.

After some heated debate, the money men won out. Microsoft decided that automatic privacy would make it more difficult for the company to profit from selling online ads, so the plans were shelved.

Simon Davies, a UK Internet privacy advocate who Microsoft consulted about its browser privacy plans, explained his frustration at the outcome, describing the proposed features as "industry-leading".

According to Davies, the 'opt in' nature of the browser's privacy features as they are now implemented means many users don't even know that the option is available. "That's where the disappointment lies," he said.

If they want to maintain their privacy, users have to enable the program's InPrivate browsing facility each time the start up the software.

Tracking tools are widely used on the Internet to monitor user behaviour and target adverts. An investigation by the Wall Street Journal, conducted by visiting the 50 most popular sites in the US using a 'clean' test computer, revealed that the sites installed an average of 64 pieces of tracking technology onto the system, including snippets of code embedded into pages that are designed to track users' clicks.

A number of major IT companies have invested heavily in web tracking technology, including Microsoft, Apple, Google and Adobe. Microsoft bought web advertising firm aQuantive in 2007 for more than $6 billion.

The technology involved in browser tracking is becoming ever more sophisticated. In May, Internet privacy group the Electronic Frontier Foundation released a report highlighting a new trend in tracking technologies that do not require small identifying text files or 'cookies' to be downloaded. Instead, sites probe visitors' systems to take a snapshot of computer hardware and software that acts as a unique 'fingerprint', recognisable by any site within the same advertising network.

The EFF has developed a test site that allows users to see how much information their browser is giving away. You can find it here.