Google hits back at Microsoft privacy claims

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Google has taken the latest swipe at Microsoft in their war of words over user privacy, calling the Redmond-based software giant’s web browser Internet Explorer 9, “widely non-operational”.

The statement came in response to a blog post from Microsoft saying that IE9 provided “some of the strongest privacy protection in the industry”. The post itself was a response to a report in the Wall Street Journal claiming that Google had been tracking the browsing habits of Safari users.

That tracking does, however, have to be turned, otherwise Google is still capable of bypassing the feature.

According to the Journal, the companies “used special computer code that tricks Apple’s Safari Web-browsing software into letting them monitor many users”.

This was reportedly in direct contravention of mechanisms built into the Apple web browser, which are meant to block this kind of tracking by default.

In the wake of the report, Microsoft also claimed that this kind of tracking by Google “was not new”. Hardly surprising given that it’s been trying to position itself as an advocate of user privacy and Google as a kind of interfering bogeyman, rifling through all your private data.

Google’s response to Microsoft’s accusations is lengthy and focusses on the various omissions made from Microsoft’s accusations including the length of time the issue has been around and what it believes to be Microsoft’s own faults on the issue:

Microsoft omitted important information from its blog post today.

Microsoft uses a “self-declaration” protocol (known as “P3P”) dating from 2002 under which Microsoft asks websites to represent their privacy practices in machine-readable form. It is well known – including by Microsoft – that it is impractical to comply with Microsoft’s request while providing modern web functionality. We have been open about our approach, as have many other websites.
Today the Microsoft policy is widely non-operational. A 2010 research report indicated that over 11 000 websites were not issuing valid P3P policies as requested by Microsoft.
Here is some more information.

Issue has been around since 2002
For many years, Microsoft’s browser has requested every website to “self-declare” its cookies and privacy policies in machine readable form, using particular “P3P” three-letter policies.
Essentially, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer browser requests of websites, “Tell us what sort of functionality your cookies provide, and we’ll decide whether to allow them.” This didn’t have a huge impact in 2002 when P3P was introduced (in fact the Wall Street Journaltoday states that our DoubleClick ad cookies comply with Microsoft’s request), but newer cookie-based features are broken by the Microsoft implementation in IE. These include things like Facebook “Like” buttons, the ability to sign-in to websites using your Google account, and hundreds more modern web services. It is well known that it is impractical to comply with Microsoft’s request while providing this web functionality.

Today the Microsoft policy is widely non-operational.

In 2010 it was reported:
Browsers like Chrome, Firefox and Safari have simpler security settings. Instead of checking a site’s compact policy, these browsers simply let people choose to block all cookies, block only third-party cookies or allow all cookies…

Thousands of sites don’t use valid P3P policies…
A firm that helps companies implement privacy standards, TRUSTe, confirmed in 2010 that most of the websites it certifies were not using valid P3P policies as requested by Microsoft:

Despite having been around for over a decade, P3P adoption has not taken off. It’s worth noting again that less than 12 percent of the more than 3 000 websites TRUSTe certifies have a P3P compact policy. The reality is that consumers don’t, by and large, use the P3P framework to make decisions about personal information disclosure.

A 2010 research paper by Carnegie Mellon found that 11 176 of 33 139 websites were not issuing valid P3P policies as requested by Microsoft.

In the research paper, among the websites that were most frequently providing different code to that requested by Microsoft: Microsoft’s own live.com and msn.com websites.

Microsoft support website
The 2010 research paper “discovered that Microsoft’s support website recommends the use of invalid CPs (codes) as a work-around for a problem in IE.” This recommendation was a major reason that many of the 11 176 websites provided different code to the one requested by Microsoft.

Google’s provided a link that explained our practice.

Microsoft could change this today

As others are noting today, this has been well known for years.

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