Apple and Microsoft get it. Google doesn’t. That line-up is surprising, yet it reflects recent decisions made by each of those mega-brands which illustrate an important shift in how business is viewing data. Any other company thinking about the balance between privacy and profit would do well to take a close look.
There is no legislation in America which required them to do this. Although Do Not Track is one of the mechanisms being promoted as a way for consumers to manage access to their personal information, it currently does not have the power of law. Even if adopted at a federal level , it will merely be a requirement to offer this privacy control - it will be up to consumers whether to use it.
So the device manufacturer and software developer have both got ahead of the curve. Neither was under any pressure to do so - barring the issue of the iPhone logging location data on any device it is synched with, Apple has not been on the wrong side of the data protection debate.
Microsoft is much closer to the cutting edge on this issue, since it is both a software vendor and also a media owner. That makes its decision to make Do Not Track the default all the more remarkable, since it effectively puts up a barrier to one part of its business that will need negotiation with consumers to overcome.
Why do it then? It is tempting to see this as the outcome of arbitrage at the highest level of those businesses. In the balance have been thrown business-as-usual data capture, privacy settings, potential regulation and profit, plus consumer perceptions of the brand. Of these, profit has not been the decider - at least in the short-term. What makes the move look really smart is the way it is likely to build trust that these are brands with a real commitment to protecting personal information.
Taking the other view is Google, which worked out a way to fake-out Safari blocking and continue to place cookies. While claiming it was only supporting users who are logged in to its many services, the method used looks suspect - making the browser believe the user had submitted a form opting them in - and the Federal Trade Commission was not happy about it.
It is a surprise to see the search engine do something that runs counter to its informal corporate slogan, “Don’t be evil”. But it is in line with a number of previous attempts to capture personal information on the downlow. Perhaps Google has a darker heart than has been visible.
Yet there is another explanation which makes its motives crystal clear. Many of the biggest Internet properties are operating as walled gardens - Facebook being the prime example. Apple may be moving further towards being a service provider (dropping Google Maps could be seen as part of that) and may want to reserve special access to data within those services to itself.
Google’s stated aim is to index the world’s information (although why they should do that is open to question) and its very business model is threatened by walled gardens of any sort. Finding out how to sneak in is critical if it wants to be a sustainable business. When it came down to it, Google chose profit, while Apple and Microsoft went for privacy.
What will you decide?