There's a throwaway line in Microsoft's Windows 8 preview announcement that could completely overhaul online data collection.
Buried within the invitation for people to test drive a version of the new operating system, nestled among the host of apps from Microsoft and its partners, hidden beneath the description of the changes of the user interface are the words "it is also the first browser to feature Do Not Track 'on' by default, giving customers more choice and control over their privacy."
The browser, Internet Explorer 10, is bundled with Windows 8.
The Direct Marketing Association noticed the phrase, and the DMA is concerned. A statement issued shortly after Microsoft's announcement on Thursday did not specifically mention the new operating system, but it did quote acting president and CEO Linda A. Woolley saying "A default 'Do Not Track' mechanism is bad for consumers and the Internet economy. It deviates from widely accepted responsible industry practices and undercuts consumer choice."
Statements from the Association of National Advertisers and the Interactive Advertising Bureau were more explicit. They condemned, by name, the decision to make the default setting do-not-track in Internet Explorer 10.
“Microsoft, which had been an active participant in the [Digital Advertising Alliance's] finely tuned self-regulatory program regarding data collection and interest-based advertising, acted irresponsibly through its unilateral action to embed ‘Do Not Track’ functionality into Internet Explorer 10 with a default setting in the ‘on’ position,” said Bob Liodice, the ANA's president and CEO, in a statement.
Liodice continued, “Microsoft’s decision, made without industry discussion or consensus, undercuts years of tireless, collaborative efforts across the business community—efforts that were recently heralded by the White House and Federal Trade Commission as an effective way to educate consumers and address their concerns regarding data collection, targeted advertising and privacy."
And in an open letter Randall Rothenberg, president and CEO of the Interactive Advertising Bureau, called the decision "a step backwards in consumer choice, and we fear it will harm many of the businesses, particularly publishers, that fuel so much of the rich content on the internet".
Once Windows 8 becomes the new standard (the official release is scheduled for late summer), marketers are going to start losing access to consumer browsing behavior, unless consumers actively chose to have their movements tracked and change the setting.
It means that, almost immediately, marketers are going to lose a lot of data generated during the work day, when consumers use powerful work connections to surf the 'net. Industry will be the first segment to upgrade en masse to the new system, which means records of a lot of shopping and browsing information is going bye-bye. And consumers are probably less likely to change the settings on their office computers than on their home machines.
Microsoft is touting Windows 8 as being more compatible with touch-screen devices such as tablets. To date these have been purchased and used by affluent consumers, which means information on this segment is at risk of being lost as well.
Trade groups can rail against default do-not-track settings all they want. The chances of the operating system changing the default setting to off between now and the official release are negligible, as the consumer outcry would be terrific. And that's before legislators, mindful of election year politicking, weigh in.
In short, this battle is effectively over. Microsoft has now made do not track without explicit permission the industry standard. Marketers can wring their hands and oppose it all they want, or they can pull together a massive education campaign, coupled with tangible, relevant rewards, that makes a benefits-based case for changing the default settings.
The time for handwringing and decrying is over. It's time to time to get educating.