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Microsoft slams Google over iPhone, Mac privacy boner

Again touts IE9 as an alternative for Google-fearing users

Microsoft today used the latest privacy flap involving Google to again blast its rival's behavior.

Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal accused Google and several other online advertising companies of circumventing the privacy protections built into Apple's Safari browser, and enabled by default on iPhones, iPads and Macs.

In a response to a request for comment from the IDG News Service, Rachel Whetstone, Google's senior vice president for communications and public policy, called the newspaper's charges a mischaracterization, denied the code embedded in websites tracked users, but admitted that the code installed other advertising tracking "cookies" on users' iOS and OS X devices.

"We didn't anticipate that this would happen," Whetstone said, "and we have now started removing these advertising cookies from Safari browsers."

Microsoft used the brouhaha -- not Google's first over privacy -- to again ding its rival.

"This type of tracking by Google is not new," said Ryan Gavin, Microsoft's head of marketing for its Internet Explorer (IE) browser, in a Friday blog . "The novelty here is that Google apparently circumvented the privacy protections built into Apple's Safari browser in a deliberate, and ultimately, successful fashion."

Gavin also took the time to pitch IE9 as an alternative, arguing that Microsoft's browser "respects your privacy."

Microsoft and Google have different ideas on Do Not Track, the label for ways browser users can set their applications to block advertisers' efforts to track their movements and record their behavior on the Web.

IE, along with Mozilla's Firefox and Apple's Safari, supports the Do Not Track HTTP Header , an initiative promoted by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and several privacy advocacy groups, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). That effort relies on websites and advertisers to modify code on their end to respond to the Do Not Track request.

IE9 also includes a different feature, dubbed "Tracking Protection," that uses third-party-published lists to selectively block sites and content embedded in Web sites.

Google's Chrome does not support the Do Not Track header. Instead, the browser leans on a plug-in called "Keep My Opt-Outs" that blocks targeted ads produced by several dozen companies and ad networks that hew to self-regulation guidelines set by the online advertising industry.

Microsoft and Google have regularly butted heads over privacy.

Two weeks ago, Microsoft ran a three-day campaign in several major newspaper with advertisements claiming IE9 was superior in protecting users' privacy. At the time, Google countered with a blog post that characterized Microsoft's claims as "myths."

Today, the EFF and other privacy groups called on Google to straighten up.

"You need to make a pro-privacy offering to restore your users' trust," wrote Peter Eckersley and Rainey Reitman, the EFF's technology projects director and activism director, in an open letter to Google. "It's time to commit to giving users a voice about tracking and then respecting those wishes."

The Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT) was harsher, calling Google's actions "unacceptable."

"We are severely disappointed that Google and others choose to place tracking cookies on Safari browsers using invisible form submission," said Justin Brookman, director of consumer privacy, in an email. "We are perplexed how this decision evaded Google's internal design and review process. After several recent missteps -- and two new reboots on privacy-by-design -- this should never have happened."

The Safari bungle was only the most recent in a series from Google.

Last month, the company demoted the search ranking of Chrome's download page after bloggers revealed a pay-for-links scheme that Google attributed to a rogue operation run by a marketing firm it had hired.

Google promised to keep the search penalty in place for at least 60 days, a move that one metrics vendor used to explain the January downturn in Chrome's usage share .

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer , on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is gkeizer@computerworld.com .

See more articles by Gregg Keizer .

Read more about privacy in Computerworld's Privacy Topic Center.


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