Google, Microsoft tangle over tracking, online privacy

Last week, Google scrambled to deflect criticism that it tracked the online activities of users’ of Apple’s Safari Web browser against their wishes, by circumventing an anti-tracking mechanism.

Tuesday, Google lashed out at Microsoft in response to allegations that the search giant has been doing much the same to users of Windows Internet Explorer browser. Google and Facebook are under pressure from Congress and the Federal Trade Commission to disclose more about their tracking techniques.

Ironically, this latest tempest, stirred up by Microsoft, could widen the spotlight and invite scrutiny of Microsoft’s own tracking practices, and those of Apple, Twitter, Amazon and thousands of Web companies in the hunt for online advertising revenue, says Al Hilwa, software applications analyst at IDC. “The Web industry has gravitated towards advertising as the primary source of income, and (tracking) data is the fuel the industry runs on,” Hilwa says.

In a blog posting on Monday, Microsoft corporate vice president Dean Hachamovitch accused Google of issuing tracking mechanisms designed to bypass technology called P3P. Internet Explorer uses P3P to screen the privacy policies of any entity engaged in online tracking — to determine if they’re up to snuff.

Google senior vice president Rachel Whetstone responded by blasting P3P as “largely non-operational.” As proof, she pointed to a 2010 Carnegie Mellon research report finding 11,000 websites that routinely bypass P3P.

The professor who ran that study, Lorrie Faith Cranor, says many website operators bypass P3P by mistake, while others do it on purpose to circumvent Microsoft’s attempt at grading their privacy policies.

Google and Facebook, Cranor says, are in the latter group. Each uses tracking mechanisms that bypass P3P so that popular features, such Facebook’s “Like” button and Google Gmail logon services, work.

Whetstone contends that channeling tracking mechanisms through P3P makes little sense. “It is impractical to comply with Microsoft’s request while providing modern Web functionality,” she says

Hachamovitch, meanwhile, insists that Google should “commit to honoring P3P.” Yet, the Carnegie Mellon study found even some Microsoft websites bypass P3P, as do sites from Godaddy, Hulu and Amazon. “My students and I discovered that Google, Facebook and thousands of others essentially have bogus privacy policies,” Cranor says.

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