Microsoft's Surprise 'Do Not Track' Move, By The Numbers

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dntMicrosoft's decision to ship Internet Explorer 10 with Do Not Track "on" by default has created palpable upset in digital ad circles. Evidon, the Association of National Advertisers, and the Interactive Advertising Bureau quickly lambasted the decision, which may renege on a non-publicized agreement among members of the Digital Advertising Alliance that DNT should be a strictly opt-in affair.

It's too early to gauge the impact either of this move or the general momentum behind Do-Not-Track, but the available numbers on browser share and early user adoption of DNT start to tell the story.

Browser Wars

IE has dramatically lost share since 2004, the year Mozilla introduced version 1 of Firefox. In January of that year IE had 84.6 percent of the browser market, according to W3Schools data. From that height it fell to 28.9 percent by April 2011, putting it in second place behind Google Chrome (29.2 percent), per StatCounter data. Several other data sources affirm this ranking.

Microsoft, which recently launched a peculiar marketing push on behalf of IE (See thebrowseryoulovedtohate.com), may view the DNT issue as a differentiator in a space where Chrome "owns" speed and Firefox is the "indie" choice. A statement to AdExchanger hints at this aim:

"Our decision to provide IE10 customers a 'privacy by default' experience in an era when so much user data is collected online reflects our commitment to putting people first.  IE10 for Windows will be the first browser to have the Do Not Track (DNT) signal on by default."

As noted by ClickZ, others see a darker intention to disrupt Google's rapidly scaling display ad revenue, or even derail the chances websites and ad networks will honor DNT signals .

Nothing Changes Fast in the Browser World

Even assuming IE can reverse its declining usage, whatever impact is wrought by Microsoft's decision will not come overnight.

IE 9 was released to the public on March 14, 2011, but as of April 2012 had only 6.4 percent of global browser share. Even IE 8 has more. Even if, 18 months from today, IE 10 has matched IE 9's current adoption, and nearly 100 percent of the new browser's users stick with the default setting, that will still amount to well under 10 percent of the Internet audience telling their browsers to issue a DNT "signal."

High DNT Adoption by Firefox Users

What do other browser DNT adoption rates tell us about what consumers want? Firefox is an interesting case; its users are turning on the DNT signal in numbers about equal to the U.S. unemployment rate. In a blog post last month, Mozilla reported:

"Current adoption rates of Do Not Track are 8.6% for desktop users of Firefox and 19% for Firefox Mobile users and we see the highest percentage of users turning on Do Not Track in The Netherlands, France and the United States."

Neither Microsoft nor Apple disclose current DNT adoption rates for their browsers, and Chrome has yet to release an update with the DNT capability. However there's good reason to think Mozilla users are more anti-advertising than Internet users as a whole. That reason: AdBlock Plus.

The browser plugin is Firefox's single most popular extension, with daily users averaging 13.3 million in March 2012. By contrast, AdBlock for Chrome – a browser with more overall users than Firefox – boasts 5 million users. Conclusion: Firefox opt-outs are not a barometer for all browser users, and the 8.6 percent DNT adoption rate is almost certainly higher than the industry average will be once the function has propogated across all browsers.

Industry Reaction

The backlash from advertising stakeholders against Microsoft's move has been quick and fierce. Evidon bluntly states, "This is not good for consumers or the industry," before elaborating:

"This is a paternalistic, subjective call by the IE10 team that they know what is best for all of us.  Privacy controls are like nutrition labels on food -- consumers need to know what’s there, but the decision of what to eat remains theirs alone.  The industry (including Microsoft’s own ad network), government and privacy advocates agreed to extend this concept to browser controls in February at the White House.  This agreement overcame one of the major weak points of Do Not Track: It only works when the companies who collect the data agree to honor the DNT signal.  With this move, Microsoft has isolated themselves from the rest of the industry and endangered the coalition.  There may be other reasons in Redmond that are not obvious - internal politics, belief that this creates a competitive advantage for Microsoft.  But, what matters most now is that Microsoft has significantly set back a process that FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz called 'extraordinary' just two months ago."

The ANA similarly argues the move harms marketers while removing consumer choice. CEO Bob Liodice:

"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.  On behalf of the ANA's more than 450 members and in conjunction with our sister associations that founded the DAA, we request that Microsoft reconfigure IE 10, which is now in preview mode, to contain a default ‘off’ browser setting for its 'Do Not Track' function in accordance with the DAA's Self-Regulatory Program. This change in mode will provide consumers a real choice as to whether they do or do not want tailored advertising, the information to make a reasoned choice, and therefore will be consumer empowering.  We reject efforts by any provider or other group to unilaterally impose choices on the consumer in this critical area of the economy."

And here is more from Microsoft, in a Friday blog post on the decision, defending its stance:

"We’ve made today’s decision because we believe in putting people first. We believe that consumers should have more control over how information about their online behavior is tracked, shared and used... Of course, we hope that many consumers will see this value and make a conscious choice to share information in order to receive more personalized ad content. For us, that is the key distinction. Consumers should be empowered to make an informed choice and, for these reasons, we believe that for IE10 in Windows 8, a privacy-by-default state for online behavioral advertising is the right approach."

By Zach Rodgers

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