Microsoft has enjoyed months of great press for its promise to make Do Not Track the default setting on its forthcoming iteration of Internet Explorer, but it has left out one important detail: Users will still be tracked.
That also goes for users of Chrome, whose parent Google announced last week to fanfare — and praise from Federal Trade Commission Chairman Jon Leibowitz — that it will provide a prominent DNT privacy setting option as well. Users of Mozilla’s Firefox, too, aren’t getting what they think when they click on the existing option not to be tracked.
The reason: There’s nothing to force ad networks to honor it, as the browser companies well know.
“It’s an option that doesn’t do anything,” said former FTC Chief Privacy Officer Marc Groman, now executive director of the Network Advertising Initiative, a trade group. “That totally provides users with a false sense of security.”
Leibowitz has thrown his weight behind Do Not Track as a way to boost Internet privacy. Lawmakers have included the concept in some privacy bills, but the measures haven’t been enacted. Congress has left it up to the FTC, which called on industry to develop the system in its March privacy report.
None of the browser companies deny that their current Do Not Track arrangements are meaningless, nor would they explain why they tout them. Leibowitz nonetheless extolled Microsoft and Google for their DNT options.
“Google is to be commended for joining the other major browsers in endorsing ‘Do Not Track,’” Leibowitz said on Sept. 18 after the search company announced a forthcoming Chrome update that will give users a DNT option. “That’s a major victory for consumers who want and deserve choice about where their personal information is going.”
The trouble is, even if people select those DNT choices, their computers will nonetheless continue to transmit the same data on what sites they visit and advertisers will still be able to target them based on that information.
“The big issue is that Do Not Track doesn’t mean ‘do not collect information,’” an industry source said. “It’s just the name of it.”
What’s more, the whole industry knows the easiest way to enact a legitimate DNT program would be to disable cookies, the files that reside on browsers and transmit a user’s activity to whoever wishes to know. This is how, for instance, a user gets ads for casino vacation packages while surfing other sites, after having just checked Expedia for airfares to Vegas.
Safari, owned by Apple, has long been pre-set to block all cookies, which is why Safari users don’t receive ads tailored to their interests or to the interests implied by their previous browser activity.
Microsoft, Google and Mozilla have announced no plans to block cookies, although a savvy user can do so by delving deep into the browsers’ preferences menus. Instead, they allow users to believe they’ve opted out of being tracked, with no further explanation that it’s not so. On Mozilla, for instance, users picking the DNT option must check a box that reads, “Tell websites I do not want to be tracked.” It doesn’t indicate that the websites are under no obligation to honor that wish.
“There will be people who will see the setting and think that they’re getting privacy,” said Justin Brookman, director of the Center for Democracy and Technology’s Project on Consumer Privacy. “There are definitely people who turn it on and don’t know that it has no effect on what’s happening.”
Brookman and others are working on a solution via the World Wide Web Consortium, an umbrella group of diverse Internet interests that usually handles uncontroversial questions, such as setting standards for computer code. Next month, the W3C meets in Amsterdam to consider a proposal that would equate the term Do Not Track with blocking advertising networks from accessing cookies.
That idea, which has support from Leibowitz, has garnered fierce pushback from the ad-network industry. Companies like Allie Kline’s 33Across, for instance, use the data from cookies to place relevant advertising on thousands of websites around the Internet, providing a revenue stream for countless small businesses and publishers.
“Do Not Track, in all fairness, sounds really great. It sounds like Do Not Call,” Kline said. “It sounds mentally awesome. Unfortunately, it could implode the Internet. There will be a massive economic fallout of this.”