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The Do-Not-Track Balancing Act

The Do-Not-Track Balancing Act

Online advertisers and privacy advocates generally agree that Do Not Track options should be available on Web browsers. However, there's much debate about whether DNT should be opt-in or opt-out. "The privacy-friendly thing is to have DNT on by default," said Consumer Watchdog's John Simpson. But advertisers say turning on DNT by default would essentially deprive consumers of choice.

By Richard Adhikari
06/27/12 5:00 AM PT

When Microsoft announced recently that Internet Explorer 10 will have its Do Not Track (DNT) feature turned on by default, it seemed those concerned about online privacy would hail the move as a step in the right direction.

Consumer advocates and other groups had been agitating for such a feature for some time. They eventually banded together to urge the United States Federal Trade Commission to develop rules to protect consumer privacy as advertisers and marketers continued to track user behavior online.

In March, the FTC issued its final report on protecting consumer privacy online.

However, Microsoft's announcement also triggered complaints from advertisers that the decision would violate a consensus that had been reached between businesses, consumers and policy makers.

In response, the World Wide Web (W3C) standards consortium came up with a draft compromise proposal that would require browser makers leave it up to the consumer whether or not to turn on DNT.

The W3C's draft proposal seems to be at odds with the growing demand for a DNT solution. Did the W3C knuckle under to demands from the advertising community? If it did, what does this mean for privacy?

Private Eyes Are Watching You

The notion that marketers, advertisers and other corporations are tracking people online without their knowledge has outraged a wide spectrum of organizations and individuals.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) points out that online tracking cookies use so-called supercookies and fingerprints to follow people who try to delete their cookies, and that the pervasiveness of online tracking is a threat to the privacy of our online reading and communications.

The Do Not Track movement has gathered steam, and "We've been waging war for the last two years to raise the idea of a Do Not Track mechanism to the top of the to-do list for privacy reforms," John Simpson of Consumer Watchdog told TechNewsWorld.

The Love for Do Not Track

"We support Do Not Track, as reflected in our privacy policy, and are closely following the discussions of the W3C working group on Do Not Track," Twitter spokesperson Karen Wickre told TechNewsWorld.

Twitter's one of many companies, including, apparently, the majority of U.S. advertising networks and publishers, that support DNT. The major browsers -- IE 10, the Mozilla Foundation's Firefox and Safari -- support DNT. Google Chrome 17.0 and up supports DNT through a third-party extension. The Obama administration has also come out in support of DNT.

Announcing the FTC's final report on protecting consumer privacy in March, commission chairman Jon Leibowitz expressed confidence that consumers would have an easy-to-use and effective DNT option by the end of the year and warned that lawmakers would look to enacting legislation if this doesn't happen.

An FTC spokesperson was not immediately available to comment for this story.

Why Do Not Track Hurts, and Whom

The Digital Advertising Alliance (DAA), whose members include major advertisers and media firms, says turning on DNT by default would essentially deprive consumers of choice. It says it has a self-regulatory program for online behavioral advertising.

"The real battle that we're fighting at the W3C is to persuade companies to agree that Do Not Track actually means 'do not track' rather than 'do not target' or 'pretend not to track' or some other thing, Peter Eckersley, technology projects director at the EFF, and one of the editors of the compromise W3C proposal, told TechNewsWorld. "This manifests most prominently as the absurd position taken by tracking industry groups such as the DAA, which is that they should be allowed to continue setting their unique ID cookies on computers that send the Do Not Track signal."

The DAA did not respond to our request for comment.

The W3C opposes turning DNT on by default because the header then "ceases to be a signal of any affirmative action by that user" and that makes it harder to ask tracking companies that have ignored the DNT request why they did so, Eckersley explained.

The Online Trust Alliance "supports, in general for the U.S., that the user make an explicit decision to turn on DNT when upgrading or installing a new browser," OTA executive director and president Craig Spiezle told TechNewsWorld. "Conversely, when a user downloads or installs a privacy or security-enhancing product or feature that may have DNT enabled, it should be honored."

Although he agrees with the W3C's approach in principle, "I think there is a compelling case to be made that, when a browser manufacturer widely publicizes its privacy settings, it should be assumed that consumers are choosing it based on privacy settings," Consumer Watchdog's Simpson remarked. "The privacy-friendly thing is to have DNT on by default. Ad companies ought to make the case for why they think it's fine to track you."


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