In an attempt to comply with the recent wishes of the Federal Trade Commission, the World Wide Web's biggest browsers are each working on solutions aimed at helping users avoid behavioral targeting.
Last month, the Federal Trade Commission released a draft report on privacy regulations requesting that “do not track” mechanisms be built into websites or browsers. The request was a result of online users becoming increasingly wary of targeted ads, specifically those that follow movements from site to site.
The Wall Street Journal in particular highlighted how data-gathering firm Rapleaf had linked user ID information from Facebook to its own database of users and then sold that information to other companies.
The Great Race
Since the draft report surfaced, three major browsers have been toiling away at their respective solutions. Mozilla announced a new header-based “Do Not Track,” preference in Firefox that tells websites of a user's tracking preferences. The header-based approach is largely considered to be a more persistent opt-out mechanism than most other methods, such as cookies. The downside is that it requires the cooperation of browsers and websites to be fully effective.
Google's Keep My Opt-Outs browser extension for Chrome is a plug-in that currently works with 50 advertising companies. The approach is an add-on that ties into the browser's internal cookie APIs in order to make sure that the the proper opt-out setting is configured for each advertising network.
"Google's approach is effective and pragmatic because it simply wraps the existing cookie-based opt-out mechanisms that are offered by the advertising companies," explained Ryan Paul of ars technica. "The manner in which it attempts to intercept and rewrite cookies, however, poses some minor challenges and is arguably a suboptimal technical solution."
Meanwhile, Microsoft has announced an upcoming Internet Explorer 9 feature called "Tracking Protection". The option, which is currently still in development, will reportedly allow users to set up a list of sites on which the browser will automatically block any sharing of details with third-parties. These lists can either be set up manually, or downloaded (and automatically updated) from privacy groups.
And the Winner is... No one
Even though Mozilla's "Do Not Track" tool comes closest to what the Federal Trade Commission called for, nobody's a winner here. While each Internet giant's effort to provide their own version of a proper privacy tool has certainly been valiant, the end result is more symbolic than effective at this point.
For starters, because none of these tools are on by default, each is already limited by user awareness .Second, they rely on the cooperation of ad companies to operate effectively. Billions are currently motivating online advertising networks to keep clickstream tracking functioning the way it is now-- the biggest being operated by Adobe, AOL, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo.
In short, if you are among those who would like to stop ad networks from systematically indexing your surfing activities, don't hold your breath. We may be on the way there, but the kind of privacy that most users are seeking is still a long way off at best.