Earlier this week, both Mozilla and Google announced new browser features aimed at giving users greater control over how their personal data is collected online. Microsoft announced a similar initiative in December.
The introduction of browser “Do Not Track” features follows the Federal Trade Commission’s preliminary staff report, "Protecting Consumer Privacy in an Era of Rapid Change: A Proposed Framework for Businesses and Policymakers,” which supports a “universal consumer choice mechanism for online behavioral advertising.” In its report, the FTC noted that “[t]he most practical method of providing uniform choice for online behavioral advertising would likely involve placing a setting similar to a persistent cookie on a consumer’s browser and conveying that setting to sites that the browser visits, to signal whether or not the consumer wants to be tracked or receive targeted advertisements.” We discussed the FTC's proposal's in an entry last month.
The recent announcements by Mozilla, Google and Microsoft signal the beginning of a larger trend towards the voluntary implementation of “Do Not Track” mechanisms, as companies try to preempt the legislative and regulatory efforts likely to flow from the FTC’s proposed framework.
As far as the specifics of these "Do Not Track" browers, Mozilla’s proposed feature would allow a Firefox user to select a browser setting resulting in the transmission of a “Do Not Track HTTP header” that alerts websites of the user’s desire to opt-out of third-party tracking for behavioral advertising “with every click or page view.” Mozilla’s mechanism relies on the cooperation of third-party tracking companies, however, as the transmission of the HTTP header does not force an opt-out or require that websites comply.
While the Firefox “Do Not Track HTTP header” is still in the works, Google already has a plug-in called “Keep My Opt-Outs” available for its Chrome browser. “Keep My Opt-Outs” which allows users to permanently opt out of online tracking, rather than relying on cookies to save their opt-out settings. The plug-in will only block tracking from companies that already offer self-regulated opt-out services, however. According to Google, more than 50 companies offer opt outs, including the top 15 largest ad networks in the U.S.
Unlike Mozilla and Google, Microsoft has taken a user-generated approach to its “Do Not Track” mechanism, called “Tracking Protection.” The feature, to be included in Internet Explorer 9, would enable users to limit third-party tracking through the use of tracking protection lists identifying which websites they do not want to share information with. By default, the tracking protection lists will be empty, but consumers can create their own lists or add lists created by others, including consumer advocacy groups. Once a user subscribes, the tracking protection list will be automatically updated whenever the creator makes changes.