Ryan Gavin writes on the Microsoft Exploring IE Blog:

Privacy is top of mind for many people this week, as we get ready to celebrate Data Privacy Day on January 28. Over the next few days, you will hear quite a bit from Microsoft on this topic since we, as a company, continue to be very committed to ensuring the safety and privacy of our customers.

Given the timeliness of this subject, it is not surprising then that data protection and privacy are key themes at the Digital Life Design (DLD) conference taking place right now in Munich. For those not familiar with DLD, it is a truly unique event that connects business, creative, and social leaders for crossover conversation and inspiration on areas ranging from innovation to digital media to culture to science. The presenters and attendees are amazingly diverse; Vice President of the European Commission Viviane Reding, legendary physicist Freeman Dyson, and Yoko Ono are among the headliners.

Our own Dean Hachamovitch had the privilege of speaking at this year’s event, where he explored the complexity of online privacy – particularly in light of emerging trends such as the convergence of Web sites and applications – and provided a progress report on the state of online privacy protections.

As Dean highlighted in his presentation, privacy is a worldwide conversation that, at the same time, involves intensely local expectations and sensibilities. The key to progress is enabling local groups that understand local privacy concerns to engage and have an impact. One of the ways that Microsoft is helping in this regard is through a technology that ships with Internet Explorer 9 called Tracking Protection.

Tracking Protection is critical since of all the potential privacy issues, being tracked across sites as you browse is the one that comes up most consistently. Tracking Protection actually blocks the information that some sites can use to track you, relying on the information in Tracking Protection Lists. It enforces specific user preferences. You can try it out here on the IE Test Drive site, with an example of “tracking pixels” or “web beacons.”

Now, many people have asked how Tracking Protection and “Do Not Track” functionality are related. They are complimentary. Do Not Track today is an honor system. A consumer hopes that sites honor his or her request to not be tracked. What sites must do to honor that request or not, is still under discussion, as is who monitors and enforces that, and how. Some people have been clear that that’s not enough, which is why we continue to focus heavily on advancing Tracking Protection.

Tracking Protection is now a standard under development at the W3C and the momentum we have seen over the last year has been extremely encouraging. When we first released IE9, five tracking protection lists were available. Now, nine months later, there are over twenty lists worldwide from six different groups. For example, the EasyList project is an open community effort to help filter unwanted content. It is available as a Tracking Protection List here. They have had over 250,000 subscriptions to their list. You can find other lists at www.iegallery.com.

Industry Momentum for Tracking Protection

This week two leading privacy advocates – Simon Davies and Alexander Hanff of Privacy International – are releasing three new Tracking Protection Lists for Europe, including one focused on protecting children. These TPLs as well as a variety of helpful information on privacy will be available at http://privacyonline.org.uk/. These lists and the status of TPLs in general will be discussed in more detail during this week’s Computers, Privacy and Data Protection conference in Brussels. [Full disclosure: Microsoft provided these researchers a grant, as noted on their site.]

Simon Davies, Director of Privacy International, said, “Tracking Protection has huge potential and is a powerful tool for enhancing consumer privacy, but to build consumer trust it needs serious browser-level commitment. Alex and I were delighted when Microsoft decided to heavily invest in the technology since it has empowered independent parties like us to author Tracking Protections Lists knowing that the broader community will be able to take advantage of verifiable tracking protection from organizations they trust. Furthermore, we’ve also customized a copy of Internet Explorer 9 to make it easier for others to find and use our Tracking Protection Lists.”

Privacy continues to be an important aspect of moving the web forward. Our approach to helping consumers protect themselves from tracking is practical, much like our work to provide demonstrable gains in performance (see IETestDrive.com), standards support (see IE Test Center), and malware protection (looking at the spike in blocks).

We’re excited to see the progress and partnership with Web standards bodies and many other organizations deliver practical, effective, and standardized ways to help people stay in control of their information.

-Ryan