I'm not generally inclined to comment in this space on the decisions of any particular company, but the events of the past two weeks at Microsoft have left me anxious and mystified. But it turns out Microsoft probably already knew that and may soon be sending me ads for drugs to combat my anxiety and mystification.
Let's start at the beginning. Microsoft was among the scores of companies who were shoulder to shoulder with the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) and the Digital Advertising Alliance (DAA) on the issue of consumer "tracking." Oversimplifying the seemingly shared position, these groups were opposed to any legal or technical imposition of a "Do Not Track" function on browsers: the preferred remedies for protection of consumer privacy were self-regulation and education of the consumer around the choice they could make about whether or not to "opt out" of having their behavior observed and saved by websites and advertising companies. Everything was hunky-dory until Microsoft went off the reservation and announced that the next version of Internet Explorer (IE10) would have "Do Not Track" as its default setting.
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The pocket protectors in Redmond seriously blindsided online ad companies (including perhaps their own MSN division) with this swift 180 degree turn. Damage control by the IAB and others was just as swift: Disappointing but not fatal....IE is only a portion of the market...etc. To me it seemed like a calculated business and policy decision: by seizing the flag of consumer privacy protection Microsoft gives its flagging browser - and new Windows 8 platform - a much needed competitive boost. If that's the case, I understand the move (even though I'm deducting style points for their handling of the decision.)
But then there was today's news: "Microsoft Files Patent to Serve Ads Based on Mood, Body Language." The story in Advertising Age states that this amounts to an "...advertising engine that gauges people's emotional states based on their search queries, emails, instant messages and use of online games, as well as facial expressions, speech patterns and body movements." At this point I'm starting to back slowly out of the room. But what's actually in the patent application itself is even more over the top:
Weight-loss product advertisers may not want their advertisement to appear to users that are very happy. Because, a person that is really happy is less likely to purchase a self-investment product that leverages on his or her shortcomings. But a really happy person may purchase electronic products or vacation packages. No club or party advertisers want to appear when the user is sad or crying. When the user is emotionally sad, advertisements about club parties would not be appropriate and may seem annoying or negative to the user.
Ew. I think I just threw up a little bit in my mouth.
I'm not an online privacy zealot, but it's impossible not to find this more than a little creepy. But to see these ideas in print from a company that's also presenting its browser as the consumer privacy standard...that's hard to stomach. I'd love to hear reader thoughts and also to hear from someone at Microsoft on how they square these two seemingly conflicting ideas.