Browsers Go After ‘Tracking’

by on December 19, 2010 · 4 comments

Advocates of regulation will credit regulators for the fact that major browser providers Microsoft and Mozilla are going after online “tracking.” In forthcoming versions of their browsers, they will provide controls that protect against unwanted monitoring even better than the controls that now exist.

When consumer advocates cluster in Washington, D.C., asking federal agencies to solve consumer issues, of course, any progress on the issues will be credited to the threat of coercion. But experiments like these have no controls.

Decisions about the qualities of goods and services are made out at the leading edge of consumer demand, where producers work to anticipate developing public interests. Meeting demand after it has been realized is a recipe for business failure because competitors getting there before the others win market share and profits. Laggards are losers.

You can tell when regulators push for something that does not match up with consumer demand as perceived in the business sector. The regulators get nowhere. That would be the FTC’s call a decade ago for a suite of regulations requiring “notice, choice, access, and security.” The current push for “tracking” controls does appear to meet up with consumer demand, and, again, the browser providers are working on it years ahead of what any regulation would have required.

I’ve put “tracking” in scare quotes because the open question is just what anyone means by the word. The report linked above notes a comment from Google, provider of the Chrome browser:

“The idea of ‘Do Not Track’ is interesting, but there doesn’t seem to be consensus on what ‘tracking’ really means, nor how new proposals could be implemented in a way that respects people’s current privacy controls,” said the company…

Maybe Google will be the laggard and loser for not moving on “tracking” as fast as its competitors. That’s one approach, while Microsoft and Mozilla will each take a different tack to the problem. The result will be an experiment that does have controls. The browser provider that meets up with consumer interests, in the consumer-friendliest way, wins. Such would not be the case if a federal regulation—yes, one-size-fits-all—determined what “tracking” was and how browsers or others would provide protection against it.

Marketplace competition will do better than any other known method for determining what “tracking” means to consumers and what to do about it. There is no privacy advocate, there is no technologist, no advocacy group, nor academic who knows what to do here.

The one thing I recommend is that do-not-track efforts should control the content of the header and the domains the browser communicates with. Simply putting a “do-not-track” signal in the header would punt the problem back to regulators and the cadre that surrounds them. This group would come up with something that satisfies itself, the regulatory community, but that does not digest and reconcile actual consumers’ competing interests in privacy, convenience, access to content, and so on.

  • http://twitter.com/binarybits Timothy Lee

    Right on. One other thing that’s worth emphasizing is that the process of persuading browser vendors to change their products isn’t that different from the process of persuading the FTC to adopt a do-not-track rule. When the private sector adopts some policy change as the government is considering new regulations, that may be a sign that the private party is trying to preempt regulation. But it might also be a sign that the campaign to raise awareness about the issue independently and simultaneously affected the behavior of the browser vendors and the regulators. I think this is probably a good example where the latter effect predominates.

  • Jim Harper

    Thanks, Tim. A subtlety I didn’t cover well when I was writing this is that companies will kill regulation that just makes them worse off because they perceive it as not serving an actual consumer interest they can use to fight for competitive advantage. That’s what I meant when I said, “The regulators get nowhere.”

    Here, I think, the campaign affects both and, perceiving that there is a real consumer interest at stake, the companies get on board with the idea, making regulation superfluous. When regulation “matters” is when it’s not actually something that’s in consumers’ interest according to the market test.

    If there’s a difference between us — and I’m not sure there is — it’s that I think there isn’t that much distinction between “moving to preempt” and being affected by the campaign. Companies will move to preempt when the idea — here, improving the browser — is a good thing to do, and they’ll just work to kill a regulation if it’s just not a good thing to do. (This is subject to the caveat that companies will agree to go along with regulation if they don’t perceive it to affect their competitive position, or if it improves their competitive position by locking out new competition.)

  • Jim Harper

    Thanks, Tim. A subtlety I didn’t cover well when I was writing this is that companies will kill regulation that just makes them worse off because they perceive it as not serving an actual consumer interest they can use to fight for competitive advantage. That’s what I meant when I said, “The regulators get nowhere.”

    Here, I think, the campaign affects both and, perceiving that there is a real consumer interest at stake, the companies get on board with the idea, making regulation superfluous. When regulation “matters” is when it’s not actually something that’s in consumers’ interest according to the market test.

    If there’s a difference between us — and I’m not sure there is — it’s that I think there isn’t that much distinction between “moving to preempt” and being affected by the campaign. Companies will move to preempt when the idea — here, improving the browser — is a good thing to do, and they’ll just work to kill a regulation if it’s just not a good thing to do. (This is subject to the caveat that companies will agree to go along with regulation if they don’t perceive it to affect their competitive position, or if it improves their competitive position by locking out new competition.)

  • Pingback: Microsoft Pushes “Do-Not-Track”

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