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Microsoft Attempts to Defuse Privacy Issue With a 'Tracking Protection' Function for Internet Explorer

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NEW YORK ( -- Microsoft unveiled a new function for the latest version of its Internet Explorer web browser that will allow users to reject third-party websites from tracking them online. The new feature will allow users of Internet Explorer 9 to create and subscribe to lists of sites with which they don't want to share information, including ads that target people based on their surfing behavior.

The Wall Street Journal reported that this is the resurrection of a feature that Microsoft considered for an earlier version of Internet Explorer but dropped due to advertiser opposition. Microsoft execs couched it as part of their ongoing talks with regulators in Washington and Europe on the issue of web privacy. Last week, the Federal Trade Commission issued a report that criticized the online ad industry for doing too little to protect consumers from aggressive online tracking.

Internet Explorer and other browsers allow users to opt out of all tracking cookies, and to clear their browsers after a session to delete any files left their by web sites and third-party tracking firms. The new feature allows users to opt out of some sites but not others.

"You can look at this as a translation of the "Do Not Call" list from the telephone to the browser and web," Microsoft Senior VP for Internet Explorer Dean Hachamovitch wrote in a blog post. "It complements many of the other approaches being discussed for browser controls of Do Not Track."

But it requires that consumers know enough to turn it on, as well as to decide which sites to allow and which to block and which to trust. Indeed knowing what parts of a web page are collecting information requires a pretty sophisticated understanding of the way the web works.

"Requiring users to sort out which sites are good and bad puts the onus on the wrong people, Anup Ghosh, founder and chief scientist of software security firm Invincea, told AP. "With this kind of 'do not track' list, the industry is not held accountable for not tracking; it's the user that's responsible. Users aren't equipped to make these kinds of decisions, nor do they want to."

What makes it complicated is that websites use myriad third-party data providers and collectors, plug-ins, commenting systems, Facebook "like" buttons and many other features that could be deactivated depending on which lists users subscribe to. If blocked, those elements would simply disappear. In a webcast, Mr. Hachamovitch declined to speculate how many users will try out the new feature. While studies have shown consumers are concerned about their privacy, when Yahoo, Google or firms like Better Advertising give them the opportunity to not be tracked, few bother to use it.

Microsoft is offering the code for its "Tracking Protection List" under a Creative Commons license so other browsers could also implement the functionality and recognize the choices reflected in the lists.

Internet Explorer has been losing share, but it's still the most popular browser in the world with 58% of the market, according to Net Applications. Mozilla's Firefox has 23% and Google's Chrome, launched last year, has 9.3%.

Here's a Microsoft video showing how the new controls will work:

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