Washington: A movement by privacy activists to curb tracking of Internet users' browsing habits scored a major victory last month when Microsoft launched its new browser with 'do not track' as the default, or automatic setting.
But some advertisers are in revolt against the move, certain websites are skirting the Microsoft effort and the debate over online privacy and tracking is heating up.
The controversy stems from practices used by websites and marketing partners to track browsing activity to be able to deliver ads targeted to individuals.
The ad industry argues that tracking is done anonymously without violating privacy, but some say it is easy to connect the person's anonymous IP address or mobile device to a real person.
"It is trivial to make those connections," says Jim Brock, a former Yahoo! executive who now heads a venture called PrivacyFix which offers browser plug-ins for privacy and other services to consumers and businesses.
Websites and mobile device use a variety of software to determine a user's browsing habits. Marketers can then use that data for 'behavioural ads' designed with people's habits in mind.
In some cases, these electronic tags can predict if a consumer is price-sensitive, allowing sellers to charge more or less for a product or service.
Privacy activists say a simple Web search can make consumers a target for marketers, and that viewing certain websites may identify them as homosexuals, Aids patients or suffering from another disease.
"That is one of the scariest things, and it shakes people's faith in the marketing industry," Brock said. "There is very little protection for targeting based on health conditions. This is information that can get in the hands of insurance companies and employers who might not use it in a way we would expect."
Most Web browsers allow users to activate a 'do not track' privacy feature, and Microsoft designed its Internet Explorer 10 with the feature as the default setting.
"We believe consumers should have more control over how data about their online behaviour is tracked, shared, and used," Microsoft chief privacy officer Brendon Lynch said.
Advertisers see the issue differently, arguing that Microsoft should not make the decision for consumers.The Digital Advertising Alliance, a consortium of the largest United States media and marketing associations, told its members they can ignore or override the default settings in Microsoft or other browsers.
"The trade associations that lead the DAA do not believe