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Microsoft unveils do-not-track feature in browser

Microsoft announced Tuesday that its next version of its popular Internet Explorer browser will include a feature allowing consumer to add a list of Web sites they do not want to track them on the Internet.

Microsoft's announcement comes less than a week after the Federal Trade Commission called for the creation of a "do-not-track" mechanism, as part of a preliminary report outlining ways to improve consumer privacy online, that would allow consumers to choose whether they want to be tracked as they surf the Web. Many Internet firms track consumers on the Web so they can target ads at them based on their preferences.

Microsoft's new tracking protection feature will be available on Internet Explorer 9 version, which is expected to be available early next year.

The tracking protection feature Microsoft unveiled is different from what the FTC and some privacy advocates have proposed. Microsoft's feature, which consumers will have to turn on, will allow them to create a list of websites that the consumer would prefer not to exchange information with or sites with which they do wish to communicate. Microsoft will not provide such lists but expects that many groups will create lists for consumers to use. The lists will persist even after a user ends their browser session and Internet Explorer will look for updates to the lists automatically.

The tracking protection feature will provide "a new browser mechanism for consumers to opt-in and exercise more control over their browsing information," Microsoft Corporate Vice President Dean Hachamovitch , head of Internet Explorer development, said in a blog post. He added during a Webcast announcing the new feature that it provides a balanced approach between protecting the needs of consumers and the online industry.

The FTC and some privacy groups also have called for a browser-based approach to allow consumers to opt-out of tracking but their proposal would allow consumers to turn on a feature on the browser that would send a signal to websites that the consumer does not want to be tracked. FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz described this approach as an "easy, one-stop shop for consumers to express their choices."

Microsoft officials said while the new Internet Explorer tracking feature could "compliment" other efforts, they noted that one challenge facing the FTC approach is that there is no one definition of what it means to be tracked on the Web.

Susan Grant , director of consumer protection for the Consumer Federation of America, praised Microsoft for taking a "positive step forward" to give consumers more control over whether they want to be tracked. She noted that her group first proposed a list approach when it originally called for a "do-not-track" system in 2007.

But Grant added that she is "concerned the red-list approach is more confusing for consumers than the more simple approach we've been talking about. ... They both have pros and cons. Both rely to certain extent on trust."

She added that "I don't know if it's a better solution than the one we've proposed most recently. At least it's a major commitment from a major player here."

Microsoft's Internet Explorer is by far the most widely used Internet browser, enjoying more than 58 percent of the Internet browser market, according to the latest statistics from Net Applications.

There have been reports that Mozilla also is considering adding some sort of "do-not-track" feature to its Firefox browser, which is the second most widely used. The company did not respond to a request for comment on such reports.

In a statement, Leibowitz said, "Microsoft deserves enormous credit for taking a critical step toward providing consumers with more choice about who can track their online browsing. An option for consumers to limit which sites can track them provides a choice they deserve to have. Just as important, this announcement proves that technology is available to let consumers control tracking. Now others in both the browser and advertising communities need to step up and develop technologies including implementing a Do-Not-Track option."

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