Microsoft’s Browser Threat

Microsoft recently released a new beta version of Internet Explorer 9, an announcement that hasn’t received lots of attention in our industry. This is somewhat surprising to me, given that IE9 offers a feature that  blocks third-party advertising and content. It represents a potentially serious challenge to how most of our industry operates.

In preliminary tests, IE9’s “Tracking Protection” feature tends to, over time and in ways that are sometimes unclear to this Internet user, block third-party content, certain renderings of Adsense, the Facebook Like button, and similar third party widgets and buttons. That’s on top of many third-party advertisements which quickly disappear from my IE9 browsing experience.

Is this what the FTC really wanted when it called for a browser-based ‚”Do Not Track” mechanism this past December? That would be hard to believe, although after making a very public splash regarding Do Not Track, the Commission has been silent, and it’s difficult to say for sure.  I have encouraged the FTC to clarify its position on this in my public comments to their December white paper.

We have already had this debate: the industry came down squarely against this very sort of activity. Nearly a decade ago, adware companies’ practice of interfering with the revenues of Web sites through the popping-up of ads onto publisher sites was widely condemned, and the IAB (and seemingly everyone else in the industry) rallied to decry the practice and prevent it from occurring further.

 

So why in the world isn’t anyone in our business saying anything about IE9?

 

In large part because the advertisement and content blocking, as well as poor user experience, has been neatly packed as a privacy enhancement feature. IE9 has apparently been pitched to the FTC and other regulators as something that will protect consumers ‚ a real next-generation privacy tool. In reality, though, it’s much more akin to a weapon of mass destruction if you work in the online media business — or simply just happen to like the idea of the Internet remaining free.

 

But make no mistake: this is a threat to the ad-supported, free Internet. Are you an advertiser that utilizes Adsense or other third-party ad serving? Are you a publisher that hosts third-party ads or content, including videos that render on your site?  Tracking protection might not yet be making itself felt ‚Äì but these are the very baseline website elements that IE9 puts at risk. And if Microsoft stays anywhere near its current worldwide share of the browser market, this is likely to become an issue for all of us at some point soon.

 

IE9 is not so much about privacy as it is about control. Any entity (browser manufacturers, ISPs, CDNs, etc) that is able to facilitate the blocking of content and advertising should do so responsibly. Those entities have a responsibility to act in a way in which the economic consequences are clear and open to all, including Internet users, advertisers and online publishers.

 

Clearly our industry should continue to have the privacy discussion. We should also continue to engage with and encourage solutions built around trade-off between targeted ads, advertising subsidized content, and improvements in the Internet user experience.

 

This new browser fails to do that. If you think IE9 might negatively impact your business, make this a topic of conversation at industry events. Ask those in the press who cover our industry why this important issue is not being written about. Share your concerns with all of your trade associations. And do so today. If we shine some light on what is really going on here, at the very least we can have an open and honest discussion about Do Not Track.

 

And maybe we’ll be able to help ensure that a few years from now, there’s  still a free Internet with a myriad of content choices for our kids.

 

Alan Chapell is the founder of Chapell & Associates, a consulting firm focused on privacy issues.