Google and Mozilla Take Steps Toward Do Not Track

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The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) wants you to be able to opt out of being tracked by online advertisers, similar to the way you can opt out of pesky phone calls with the Do Not Call list. The idea is being called Do Not Track, and is being implemented in less than perfect ways by browser makers.

Mozilla and Google recently announced that they were adding features to Firefox and Chrome that would let users stop some of the tracking advertisers currently do. Microsoft announced a while ago that it was adding a feature to Internet Explorer 9 that would stop some tracking. What the FTC wants would stop tracking of websites visited, links clicked, Internet searches and online purchases. What we have so far doesn't reach that goal.

The news was announced on Twitter as well.

Google, Mozilla jump on the Do Not Track bandwagon | Econsultancy than a minute ago via HootSuite

Google's announced plan is a Keep My Opt-Outs extension for Chrome. Here's how Google described the problem with do not track options.

There are more than 50 companies that are members that offer opt outs via these programs, including the top 15 largest ad networks in the U.S. Some, like Google, enable you not only to opt out, but to tailor the personalization of ads by specifying what types of ads you’re most interested in seeing.

However, the industry has faced a recurring technical challenge with these opt-outs and controls. If you clear your browser’s cookies, all customized settings — including these opt-outs — are lost. Another challenge is that sometimes new companies offer opt-outs, so you’d have to check frequently to make sure you’re opted out of what you want. A better “Do Not Track” mechanism is a browser extension that means you can easily opt out of personalized advertising from all participating ad networks only once and store that setting permanently.

Google already had the Advertising Cookie Opt-Out Plugin, a free download. The plugin only lets you permanently opt out of the DoubleClick cookie, which is an advertising cookie that Google uses. But it does retain your settings even when you clear all cookies. Google also provides personalized settings regarding ads in the Ads Preferences Manager. The recent Google announcement adds an extension called Keep my Opt-Outs to the choices in Chrome.

Google is also taking a step in the right direction, but it isn't what the FTC asked for.

Mozilla's Firefox browser also has a plugin. It isn't very effective at this point. The Firefox tool uses a declaration in the HTTP header that only works when advertisers agree to abide by it. So far none have. The HTTP header plugin for Firefox comes from Do Not Track, where the tool has been available for some time. All it does is add a header indicating the user wishes to not be tracked.

Dana Wollman from The Huffington Post quoted a Firefox offical who said,

The "Do Not Track" tool will be the first in a series of steps designed to guard privacy.

Once again, nowhere near what the FTC asked for, but taking a first step.

Not much is known yet about what Microsoft will do with tracking behavior in IE9, except that it will include features "to help keep third-party websites from tracking your Web behavior."

As CNN points out,

It's also important to note that these extensions are opt-out systems, rather than opt-in. Many consumer advocacy groups and government officials have pushed for the latter feature, which would mean behavioral advertising would no longer come default – users would have to opt-in in order to see personalized ads.

Even before the recent announcements about tracking improvements, you had a certain amount of control over your privacy already.

Existing privacy systems can be used to stop advertisers from tracking you, as ResearcherNews points out.

“@BarbaraFox: Browser firms plan 'do not track' systems” - but uptake will be quite low:Adblock etc is used by us geeks:)less than a minute ago via Twitter for iPhone

Browsers contain options in their settings and preferences that enable you to not allow any cookies, which would have the effect of blocking any tracking as well. Firefox lets you easily jump into and out of private browsing by providing an option in the Tools menu to Start Private Browsing.

Tracking is what allows advertisers to personalize the ads you see to match your interests. You may like that. If you do, you may not want to use any of the new Do Not Track tools.

Photo Credit: Sarchi.


Virginia DeBolt writes about web design education and web technology at Web Teacher and creates a daily writing prompt at First 50 Words.


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