Privacy groups have asked Congress to investigate Microsoft in the wake of a Wall Street Journal investigation of Web tracking and targeting.
Led by the Center for Digital Democracy, a half-dozen consumer watchdog groups sent letters to the heads of the relevant Senate and House oversight committees calling for an investigation of Microsoft's decision to require users of its 2008 iteration of Explorer to have to activate a tracking blocker function each time the browser was launched.
"The article makes clear, moreover, that both political and marketplace considerations played a prominent role in Microsoft's decision," said the groups in their call for an investigation, including hearings. "The revelation of Microsoft's complicity in an ad industry‐involved effort to undermine privacy protection in the latest version of the Internet Explorer browser, covered in a front‐page Wall Street Journal article....is sufficient grounds for a full committee investigation," they argue.
They also point out that The Journal story found that 50 Web sites had installed over 3,000 tracking files (cookies for example) on a computer used to test online tracking.
In some cases, the group may be preaching to the choir. Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.), one of the targets of the letter as ranking member on Energy & Commerce, has already signaled his concern, teaming with Ed Markey to seek info from some of the Web sites allegedly loading up the computer with cookies.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), another name on the list as chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, has made it clear in recent online privacy hearings that he thinks the issue is critical, and that industry needs to do more than invoke online education efforts.
"We want both Commerce Committees to investigate whether Microsoft failed to create stronger privacy safeguards in order to appease potential ad industry allies in its fight against the Google/Doubleclick deal," said Center For Digital Democracy Executive Director Jeff Chester. "Microsoft, it appears, sacrificed consumer privacy in order to boost revenues and take advantage of their $6 billion buy-out of interactive marketing giant aQuantive. However, the main congressional focus should be on whether, as the WSJ charges, "One of the fastest growing businesses on the Internet is the business of spying on Internet users."
Chester has been one of the earliest and loudest voices in the public advocacy community for more government scrutiny of online privacy and behavioral advertising, arguing that it is the next media concentration and control battleground.
"We are in the process of reviewing the letter and continuing to work with advocacy groups and the Hill on consumer privacy issues," said Microsoft spokesperson Neil Grace.
"People want online services that are personalized to meet their needs and assurance that their privacy will be protected. Microsoft designed Internet Explorer 8 to offer people a variety of privacy protections."