I’ve joked before that Microsoft is evil. They’re easy to hate. My own opinion was equal parts rooting for the underdog (that is, anyone not MS), jealousy (why didn’t I think of that) and frustration at the low level of responsiveness that comes from any monopoly. I derided their security practices and settings while secretly acknowledging that writing good software is hard.

Well, a recent Wall Street Journal article changed the balance when they reported that Microsoft had the chance to completely reset the industry standards for privacy and deliberately choose not to. In early 2008 as they were planning for the Internet Explorer 8.0 browser, the product developers were building in tools and settings that would automatically defeat most common tracking tools unless a user deliberately switched to less private settings. Then marketing managers heard about the plan and, knowing just how much of their profits come from advertising, quashed the plan. The developers were forced to pull that code and changed the default setting back to the non-private mode. True, you can still make IE an almost safe browser if you know how but most people don’t have the skill or time to do so. Microsoft squandered a golden opportunity to take the moral high road and make the internet safer for all of us.

So what are your alternatives? You actually have quite a few – so many that the choice can be intimidating. Some people rave about Google Chrome. I don’t have much experience with it but given Google’s documented approach to privacy in their other applications, I’m skeptical. Apple’s Safari has its champions. If you’re already a Mac user, it’s probably a good choice. Opera also has its fans. Opera first introduced many of the features that are now considered standard for browsers and have some of the best features for users who have visual or motor impairments. They have a lead in mobile software (smart phones, Nintendo, WII, etc) but have never really caught on for mainstream users.

My preference, though, remains Mozilla’s Firefox. It has more users than any of the others (after Microsoft) so it has more developers watching for and fixing bugs. And it’s an early and prominent player in the open-source movement, a cause that I believe deserves support. (By the way, that means it’s FREE! Really. No strings. These people do it because they think it’s right.)

That said, there are a couple of features you need to turn on in order to be properly secure even with Firefox. In particular, here are two add-ons I strongly recommend – Adblock Plus and NoScript. They take a little getting used to but are well worth it for the added security they bring. You also have to make some choices in the Firefox settings themselves. In particular, you need to choose your cookie settings. I don’t think it’s realistic to disable all cookies. Too many are used to remember login information and make the websites work. Under Tools/Options and the Privacy tab, check “Accept cookies from sites” but then change the Keep Until setting to “I close Firefox”. I also recommend checking the “Clear history when Firefox closes” button. Use the “Exceptions” button to permanently allow the common, reputable sites you visit such as Yahoo, Amazon, Google, etc.

Do all that and you’ll have a reasonably secure browser. And maybe someday the bureaucrats at Microsoft will realize that they are squandering a chance to be the good guys for a change.

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