By NICK WINGFIELD And JULIA ANGWIN
A new version of Microsoft Corp.’s Internet Explorer to be released Tuesday will be the first major Web browser to include a do-not-track tool that helps people keep their online habits from being monitored.
Microsoft’s decision to include the tool in Internet Explorer 9 means Google Inc. and Apple Inc. are the only big providers of browsers that haven’t yet declared their support for a do-no-track system in their products. In January, Mozilla Corp. said it would include a do-not-track feature in an upcoming version of its Firefox browser. Internet Explorer is the most widely used browser.
The moves by Microsoft and Mozilla reflect an unusually fast adoption of an idea—the do-not-track system—that was first officially proposed by the Federal Trade Commission only three months ago. It highlights the pressure the industry faces to provide people with a way to control how they are tracked and targeted online, as lawmakers and regulators threaten to rein in the practice.
Microsoft is also including a feature in Internet Explorer 9 called “tracking protection lists,” which will let people prevent specific Web-tracking companies from snooping on their browsing habits.
Microsoft shelved a similar feature several years ago when it was working on a prior version of its browser, under intense pressure from online advertisers and publishers, who feared the features would deprive them of necessary data to sell lucrative targeted advertising.
Those compromises by Microsoft were first reported in The Wall Street Journal last year as part of the investigative series, “What They Know,” which has examined the online information-gathering industry.
In an interview, Dean Hachamovitch, head of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer team, said Microsoft is emphasizing privacy more in its browser than before because popular awareness of online-privacy risks has risen sharply. He credited the Journal’s “What They Know” series for helping to drive the change.
“I think the landscape has changed dramatically between 2008 and 2011,” Mr. Hachamovitch said. “It just did not have visibility before.”
It still isn’t clear how effective the privacy protection tools in Microsoft’s browser will be. The do-not-track feature automatically sends out a message to websites and others requesting that the user’s data not be tracked.
But the system will only work if tracking companies agree to respect visitors’ requests. So far, no companies have publicly agreed to participate in the system.
The Interactive Advertising Bureau, which represents the online advertising industry, says its members do not know how to respond to a do-not-track request, known as a header.
“There is no context to a do-not-track header, no common definitions, no standard operating procedures for how the thousands or even millions of entities that receive the header might detect or react to such a signal,” said Mike Zaneis, general counsel for the Interactive Advertising Bureau.
Google spokesman Chris Gaither said the company, which offers the Chrome Web browser and is also a major player in online advertising, “will continue to be involved closely” in discussions about do-not-track.
In the meantime, he said Google offers an add-on program for Chrome that users can download called “Keep My Opt-Outs” that will let users request that their data not be used for targeted advertising.
An Apple spokesman declined to comment on whether it will support a do-not-track tool in its Web browser, Safari.
Users of Internet Explorer 9 will immediately be able to block some snooping of their online habits through the browser’s tracking protection list feature—provided they can figure out how to work it.
To activate it, users are directed from the browser’s Safety menu to a Web page that currently contains 17 different lists, put together by others, that compile tracking companies. The do-not-track feature is automatically enabled once a user selects a tracking list.