updated 12/7/2010 4:41:22 PM ET 2010-12-07T21:41:22

Microsoft is tweaking its Internet Explorer with an upcoming feature that will let users add lists of sites that they do and don't want tracking them, a peace offering as the debate about websites' shady surveillance tactics heats up.

( is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal.)

The announcement Tuesday comes amid uproar over the sneaky ways websites watch their users as they bounce around the Internet. The Federal Trade Commission is proposing new rules to limit advertisers' ability to do that.

But Microsoft's new feature comes with several drawbacks. One is that it's not automatically turned on, and another is that consumers will be responsible for creating or finding their own lists of sites they want to block.

Part of the reason for the uproar is that it's hard to tell which sites you're sharing information with. Websites use many third-party advertising partners that might use shady surveillance schemes.

Requiring users to sort out which sites are good and bad puts the onus on the wrong people, said Anup Ghosh, founder and chief scientist of Invincea, which makes software that companies layer on top of Internet Explorer for additional security.

"With this kind of 'do not track' list, the industry is not held accountable for not tracking; it's the user that's responsible. They kind of got it backward," he said. "Users aren't equipped to make these kinds of decisions, nor do they want to."

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Like glad-handing a room full of strangers
A familiar refrain among security and privacy professionals is that Internet users by and large don't fully appreciate the extent to which sites harvest their personal information.

Visiting a modern website is less like a handshake between two friends than it is glad-handing a room full of strangers. Unless you have tinkered with your security settings, in most browsers, you implicitly give any site you visit permission for it and all of its advertising partners to track you. The tracking happens silently, and your browsing habits are sold and analyzed by advertising firms looking for ways to show you more relevant ads.

Ghosh said it would be more useful for Microsoft to work directly with privacy groups in creating lists of sites to identify sites that engage in controversial forms of tracking.

Dean Hachamovitch, who leads Internet Explorer development for Microsoft, said on a webcast with reporters that Microsoft isn't including pre-made lists in Internet Explorer 9, which ships next year, because it would amount to making a judgment for consumers about which sites are OK to track them.

"Choosing a tracking protection list is a statement around what the consumer wants out of the box, and in some ways that is completely up to the consumer," Hachamovitch said.

Clash of interests
Privacy worries and corporate interests often collide in building a browser, which is why the privacy features that do make it into the finished product are often compromises between competing interests. As a seller of Internet advertising, Microsoft has to weigh the benefits from completely shielding consumers from tracking with its advertising customers' need to monitor people to sell them more targeted ads.

Those pressures were apparently front and center in the development of the current version of Microsoft's browser. The Wall Street Journal reported in August, in a report based on anonymous sources, that Microsoft's decision to make features that prevent tracking optional, rather than automatic, was the result of a fierce internal debate over the benefits users would gain versus the value that advertisers would lose.

Also, insisting on complete privacy, by turning off tracking features altogether and cranking up the privacy protections all the way, can make surfing the Internet a less-than-radical affair, since sites will forget who you are and your browser will forget where it's been.

Most may not use feature
Jules Polonetsky, former chief privacy officer for AOL and online ad network DoubleClick, which is now owned by Google, said that while most consumers probably won't use the new Internet Explorer features, they will likely appeal to people who are concerned about online privacy.

Industry trade groups, consumer groups, privacy watchdogs and even government agencies will likely create lists of sites for consumers to plug into the new tool, said Polonetsky, who now serves as co-chair and director of the Future of Privacy Forum, a Washington think tank that gets funding from big technology companies and advertisers.

Polonetsky said the features are an improvement over the filtering feature in the current version of Internet Explorer, which not only requires a user to turn it on every time they logged onto the Internet, but also blocked not only online ad networks, but also online news feed and all sorts of other third-party content that appears on Web sites.

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