Google: “Impractical” To Comply With IE’s P3P Privacy Controls; Microsoft, Facebook & Others Also Fail

microsoft-google-logosGoogle’s been taking fire for Microsoft accusing it of overriding Internet Explorer privacy controls. But Google’s now out with a response: the controls are out-dated, “impractical” to follow and ignored by other companies besides Google, including Facebook, some of Microsoft’s own sites and over 10,000 others.

I’m on vacation this week, so I won’t be doing a deep dive into all of this, though someone else from Marketing Land will in the near future. For now, I’ll just share a few short comments along with the full statement that Google sent us about the issue.

Not The Same As The Safari Bypass

Reading through Microsoft’s blog post myself earlier today, my initial reaction was “Really? You have this system that relies on web sites to self-declare policies about cookies as a security check but you don’t verify this? That’s security?” Or as I tweeted:

Microsoft’s post on Google bypassing IE settings also sounds like IE pretty lame checking what P3P supposed to provide

That’s not to excuse Google from bypassing privacy settings in a browser, as it clearly and self-admittedly did in the case of Safari to allow Google+ buttons to work in ads, as the Wall Street Journal reported last week.

That’s not just lame. That’s a serious breach of user trust. But Microsoft’s post today looks like it tried way too hard to jump on the “Google’s overriding privacy” bandwagon. It felt like a stretch to find some way to say “Google’s doing it to us, too.”

Facebook, Microsoft’s Partner, Ignores P3P

In fact, Facebook seems to be doing exactly the same thing that Google is doing to get around the P3P checking, as Techpolicy covers. Facebook, which if I recall, Microsoft still has 5% ownership in — and has a tight partnership to provide instant personalization of Microsoft’s Bing search engine.

If Google can’t be trusted for this, isn’t Microsoft concerned about working so closely with Facebook, as well?

Again, Google’s not to be excused for what it did with the Safari workaround. But that also doesn’t mean that Microsoft’s accusations were the same thing as with Safari, nor that they carried all the same concerns.

Google’s Statement

Here’s the full statement we were just sent by Google:

Microsoft omitted important information from its blog post today.

Microsoft uses a “self-declaration” protocol (known as “P3P”) dating from 2002 under which Microsoft asks websites to represent their privacy practices in machine-readable form.  It is well known – including by Microsoft – that it is impractical to comply with Microsoft’s request while providing modern web functionality.  We have been open about our approach, as have many other websites.

Today the Microsoft policy is widely non-operational. A 2010 research report indicated that over 11,000 websites were not issuing valid P3P policies as requested by Microsoft.

Here is some more information.

Issue has been around since 2002

For many years, Microsoft’s browser has requested every website to “self-declare” its cookies and privacy policies in machine readable form, using particular “P3P” three-letter policies.

Essentially, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer browser requests of websites, “Tell us what sort of functionality your cookies provide, and we’ll decide whether to allow them.”  This didn’t have a huge impact in 2002 when P3P was introduced (in fact the Wall Street Journal today states that our DoubleClick ad cookies comply with Microsoft’s request), but newer cookie-based features are broken by the Microsoft implementation in IE.  These include things like Facebook “Like” buttons, the ability to sign-in to websites using your Google account, and hundreds more modern web services.  It is well known that it is impractical to comply with Microsoft’s request while providing this web functionality.

Today the Microsoft policy is widely non-operational.

In 2010 it was reported: 

Browsers like Chrome, Firefox and Safari have simpler security settings. Instead of checking a site’s compact policy, these browsers simply let people choose to block all cookies, block only third-party cookies or allow all cookies..

Thousands of sites don’t use valid P3P policies….

A firm that helps companies implement privacy standards, TRUSTe, confirmed in 2010 that most of the websites it certifies were not using valid P3P policies as requested by Microsoft:

Despite having been around for over a decade, P3P adoption has not taken off. It’s worth noting again that less than 12 percent of the more than 3,000 websites TRUSTe certifies have a P3P compact policy. The reality is that consumers don’t, by and large, use the P3P framework to make decisions about personal information disclosure.

A 2010 research paper by Carnegie Mellon found that 11,176 of 33,139 websites were not issuing valid P3P policies as requested by Microsoft.

In the research paper, among the websites that were most frequently providing different code to that requested by Microsoft: Microsoft’s own and websites.

Microsoft support website

The 2010 research paperdiscovered that Microsoft’s support website recommends the use of invalid CPs (codes) as a work-around for a problem in IE.”  This recommendation was a major reason that many of the 11,176 websites provided different code to the one requested by Microsoft.

Google’s provided a link that explained our practice.

Microsoft could change this today

As others are noting today, this has been well known for years.

  • Privacy researcher Lauren Weinstein states: “In any case, Microsoft’s posting today, given what was already long known about IE and P3P deficiences in these regards, seems disingenuous at best, and certainly is not helping to move the ball usefully forward regarding these complex issues.”
  • Chris Soghoian, a privacy researcher, points out: “Instead of fixing P3P loophole in IE that FB & Amazon exploited …MS did nothing. Now they complain after Google uses it.” 
  • Even the Wall Street Journal says: “It involves a problem that has been known about for some time by Microsoft and privacy researchers….”

Normally, I wouldn’t reprint such a long statement but instead focus on the key parts. However, Google hasn’t done this as a blog post that I can see yet, so I wanted to provide the full information for others to read and assess.

Related Articles

Related Topics: Channel: Content Marketing | Google: Privacy | Legal: Privacy | Microsoft: Internet Explorer | Microsoft: Privacy | Top News


About The Author: is Founding Editor of Marketing Land. He’s a widely cited authority on search marketing and internet marketing issues, who has covered the space since 1996. Danny also serves as Chief Content Officer for Third Door Media, which publishes Search Engine Land and produces the SMX: Search Marketing Expo conference series. He has a personal blog called Daggle (and keeps his disclosures page there). He can be found on Facebook, Google + and microblogs on Twitter as @dannysullivan.

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