… and There’s Not Much You Can Do About It!
According to Zack Miners of Computer World, “the [internet] Do Not Track system is in tatters and that pair of boots you looked at online last month is still stalking you from website to website.”
The concept of an internet Do Not Track system dates back to 2009, when a number of internet privacy advocates came up with an idea to give people a way to avoid being monitored as they surf the web. The basic idea was a browser setting to eventually be built into all the major browsers called Do Not Track.
With a single browser Do Not Track (DNT) setting, users would be able to easily communicate a preference for their privacy. This system would be much easier than downloading software or creating a blacklist of specific websites/companies to block. Proponents argued that DNT would be a robust web version of the telephone Do Not Call list.
Five years later and there’s a DNT tool in virtually every browser (including Firefox, Internet Explorer, and Chrome). If you turn DNT on, it sends a signal in the HTTP header to the servers of the websites you visit. But unfortunately, it turns out that turning DNT on probably won’t change the kind or amount of data virtually all companies are collecting about your activities on their website.
The problem is most websites either don’t honor DNT, as it is a voluntary system, or they choose to interpret it very loosely. It boils down to the fact that web companies, ad agencies, and the other stakeholders never reached an agreement to define what “do not track” means in a practical sense.
“It was conceived to be a uniform signal,” said Sid Stamm, one of the three co-founders of DNT. But, “part of the problem is there’s a wide range of expectations,” Stamm continued.
The end result is that companies like Yahoo and Google, who want to track as much information as possible about users in order to sell/use the information for profit, choose to loosely interpret or ignore DNT and gather copious amounts of data on all users even if they “opt out” via DNT. The only government regulations in this area are some state laws requiring companies to publicly state whether or not they honor DNT.
Tough Road Ahead
Miners concludes by noting that the future doesn’t look bright for DNT. There’s been very little progress in the last couple of years, with minimal government or public pressure on internet companies to change their privacy policies. The World Wide Web Consortium finally published a paper aimed at a standard, a couple of months ago, but the standard itself is long overdue and years away from finalization. Furthermore, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and other public advocacy organizations have voiced fears that if/when a standard does finally come about, it’s likely to be so watered down that it won’t offer much real protection.