Coming just days after the Wall Street Journal reported that Google and three other advertising companies were bypassing privacy controls in Apple's Safari Web browser, Microsoft's charges seem calculated to further complicate Google's ongoing regulatory entanglements related both to privacy and antitrust issues.
But Google could well escape further embarrassment because of Microsoft's selective presentation of facts.
"We've found that Google bypasses the P3P Privacy Protection feature in IE," said Dean Hachamovitch, corporate VP of Internet Explorer in a blog post. "The result is similar to the recent reports of Google's circumvention of privacy protections in Apple's Safari Web browser, even though the actual bypass mechanism Google uses is different."
What Microsoft neglects to mention is that Facebook also ignores P3P, as does just about everyone these days.
Google SVP of communications and policy Rachel Whetstone said in an emailed statement that modern Web services enabled by cookies are broken by the way Microsoft implements P3P in Internet Explorer. "These include things like Facebook 'Like' buttons, the ability to sign-in to websites using your Google account, and hundreds more modern Web services," she said. "It is well known that it is impractical to comply with Microsoft's request while providing this Web functionality."
[ Only you can protect your privacy. Read Google's Privacy Invasion: It's Your Fault. ]
P3P, the Platform for Privacy Preferences, is a 10-year-old protocol that allows websites to declare their privacy policies in a machine-readable format. Microsoft is the only major browser vendor that still bothers with it, and even Microsoft doesn't implement P3P on all of its websites.
As a 2010 Carnegie Mellon research paper notes, "... many websites are not taking P3P seriously and are behaving in ways that undermine the purpose of the P3P specification."
Privacy researcher Christopher Soghoian highlighted Microsoft's hypocrisy in a Twitter post. "Instead of fixing P3P loophole in IE that [Facebook] & Amazon exploited, [Microsoft] did nothing," he wrote. "Now they complain after Google uses it."
Microsoft also took a beating in the comments section of its blog post, with far more critics than supporters.
Google suggests that transparency is enough. But that's not going to satisfy everyone.
The right forensic tools in the right hands are just a start. The new Digital Detectives issue of Dark Reading shows you how to better apply the lessons they teach. (Free registration required.)