Browser vendors clash on Do Not Track

Microsoft to activate DNT by default; Mozilla disagrees

Do Not Track (DNT) continues to gain ground. The technology originated at Mozilla and provides the means to enable users to opt out of website tracking via a setting in their browser. Although critics have noted sites are not legally obliged to comply with DNT requests, many prominent sites are nonetheless doing so, a recent example being Twitter.

However, a recent announcement by Microsoft has showcased a clash among browser vendors. Brendon Lynch, Microsoft chief privacy officer, stated in a blog post that DNT would be activated by default in Internet Explorer 10 for Windows 8: "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," said Lynch, adding that Microsoft sees Windows 8 as "an important step in this process of establishing privacy by default".

By contrast, Alex Fowler, global privacy and public policy leader at Mozilla, while welcoming Microsoft's general commitment to DNT, said in a blog post that it's the user's voice that matters, and that Mozilla would not follow Microsoft's lead. "DNT is not an off switch for a particular technology, rather it is the expression of an individual user's desire being reflected in code," he said.

There are three DNT signals that can be broadcasted: user says they accept tracking; user says they reject tracking; user hasn't chosen anything. Firefox defaults to the last of those, because, said Fowler, "we don't know what the user wants, so we're not sending any signals to servers. This causes the presence of the signal to mean more – the signal being sent should be the user's choice, not ours".

This is a long-standing stance by Mozilla – back in November 2011, lead privacy engineer Sid Stamm claimed DNT "becomes meaningless if we enable it by default for all our users […] because ultimately it's not Firefox being tracked, it's the user. Do Not Track is not Mozilla's position on tracking, it's the individual's".

However, with a number of browser users never venturing to nor changing default preferences and DNT controls not being particularly discoverable, it's possible Microsoft is making the better decision here, establishing a solid case for privacy by default (and an opt-out) rather than nothing by default (and hoping the user will opt-in themselves).