March 18 (Bloomberg) -- In the world of Web browsers, there’s “privacy,” and then there’s “security,” and they aren’t quite the same thing.
This week, Microsoft Corp. released a new version of Internet Explorer, and while we wait to hear from the security experts how it fares against hackers, it’s already taken a big step forward on the privacy front.
Internet Explorer 9, which is available as a free download from Microsoft, replaces IE’s previous, largely ineffectual scheme for preventing snoopy content providers from surreptitiously tracking your online movements. The goal may be benign -- gathering usage data for analytic purposes, for instance -- but such data can also generate a profile of you, based on your behavior, which can be used for ad-targeting or other more nefarious purposes.
The new version of Microsoft’s browser offers controls that, while far from perfect, make it easier to choose what information about your behavior you’re willing to share with online content providers.
While IE remains one of the most widely used pieces of software on the planet, it doesn’t wield the clout it once did. For years now, new generations of competing browsers -- Google’s Chrome, Apple’s Safari, Mozilla’s Firefox and Opera Software’s Opera, to name four -- have out-innovated and out-performed it.
With IE9, which is all-around faster, slicker and more enjoyable than its predecessor, Microsoft finally deserves to be front-of-mind again for anyone lucky enough to be able to run it.
Not for Everyone
Therein lies an important point: Not every Web surfer -- in fact, not even every Microsoft-using Web surfer -- will be capable of running the new software. In a bold move, the company has made IE9 compatible only with Windows 7, the current version of its desktop operating system, and with its immediate predecessor, Vista. About half of all Windows users, who are still on the nine-year-old XP operating system, are out of luck.
Microsoft says that step was made necessary by the new features of IE9 that integrate it more deeply with the operating system than previous versions, or, in earlier years, antitrust regulators would allow.
Among other things, IE9 blurs the line between programs running on your computer’s hard drive and content from the Web. Website icons can now be permanently affixed to Windows’s task bar, where they both look and, if the site developer supports it, act much like applications located on your PC.
Pin the Yahoo! icon to your task bar, for instance, and a right-button mouse click opens a menu called a jump list that lets you go directly to the site’s widely used mail, finance and sports services. The New York Times menu gives you links to its top 10 headlines, plus shortcuts to its home page and search, video and most-popular functions.
The new browser is also much speedier. Its Windows-only orientation means Microsoft didn’t have to make compromises to assure it would run the same on other operating systems; by contrast, Chrome, Safari, Firefox and Opera all have versions that run on Macs as well as PCs, and all except Safari have versions for the open-source Linux operating system too.
The most important part of Microsoft’s Windows-only approach is that IE can harness your PC’s hardware to give itself a significant speed boost for performing certain kinds of functions -- running animated graphics, for instance.
IE9’s new privacy features, meanwhile, represent an upping of the ante for other browser developers. The previous version of Explorer had a tool called “InPrivate Filtering” that proved to be deeply flawed. Among other things, it was disabled by default; to trigger it, users had to deliberately switch it on, and every time they closed their browser, the setting would revert to the off position.
While IE9 still requires the user to choose tracking protection, this time it’s easier to do, more powerful and persists across browsing sessions.
To enable the feature, you’ll click on the settings icon on IE9’s newly streamlined interface, and choose the “Safety” option from the pull-down menu. The software uses two methods for blocking tracking. One instructs your browser to tell content providers that you don’t wish to be tracked. While reputable services should comply, there’s no protection against the unscrupulous ones.
The second method requires a little more work on your part, hopefully just once, by allowing you to easily subscribe to online “tracking protection lists.” These lists are maintained and updated by online-privacy organizations such as TRUSTe and PrivacyChoice, which monitor content providers and their technologies, and are supposed to actually block their efforts.
Cat and Mouse
The big question is how well the new tools work, or whether they’ll trigger cat-and-mouse moves by less-than-reputable sites to circumvent them. Indeed, one risk with Microsoft’s new features is that they’ll result in a false sense of security.
Still, they represent a welcome step to put privacy issues front and center -- and not just for Microsoft. The next version of Firefox will include “do not track” functionality, for instance, while Google recently made an anti-tracking add-on available for its new Chrome 10 browser.
With President Barack Obama’s administration and Congress beginning to debate the need for online-privacy legislation, Microsoft’s efforts with IE9 may be just the opening salvo in a feature war among all the browser makers to make Web surfing safer and more private. We can only hope.
(Rich Jaroslovsky is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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