Privacy

Google, Mozilla announce new ‘do not track’ features

January 24, 2011

Google, maker of the Chrome web browser, on Monday made a feature available that allows users to permanently opt out of online behavioral advertising tracking cookies.

The tool, called “Keep My Opt-Outs,” is available as an extension for download in Chrome, Google product managers Sean Harvey and Rajas Moonka, wrote in a blog post Monday.

The announcement comes on the heels of a Federal Trade Commission report that urged companies to develop a 'do not track' mechanism so consumers can choose whether to allow the collection of data regarding online searching and browsing activities.

The new extension aims to solve a problem with existing cookie-based opt out solutions offered by members of the advertising industry, Google said.

“The industry has faced a recurring technical challenge with these opt-outs and controls,” Harvey and Moonka wrote in the blog post. “If you clear your browser's cookies, all customized settings — including these opt-outs — are lost.”

Currently, more than 50 advertising companies that are part of the Network Advertising Initiative, an association of ad networks, allow users to opt out of tracking through such cookie-based solutions, Google said. Another drawback of these solutions is that users have to constantly update their preferences as new companies offer opt-outs.

Google's new extension allows users to “easily opt out of personalized advertising from all participating ad networks only once and store that setting permanently,” the search giant said.  

Meanwhile, browser makers Mozilla and Microsoft have also recently announced their intentions to release similar features for their respective browsers.

Microsoft in early December said the forthcoming Internet Explorer (IE) 9 will contain a new “opt-in” control that will prevent users from being unknowingly tracked by websites.

Mozilla on Friday said it is working on a new feature that would allow Firefox users to opt-out of online behavioral tracking.

The new Firefox feature would allow users to set a browser preference that would communicate their desire to opt-out of third-party advertising-based tracking, according to Mozilla. If enabled, the feature would transmit a 'do not track' HTTP header to every webpage that is visited in Firefox. Advertisers would subsequently place a non-personalized advertisement on the page and log a user's activity anonymously.

“We believe it's crucial to put people in control of their personal web interactions and experiences,” Alexander Fowler, global privacy and public policy leader at Mozilla, wrote in a blog post Friday. “In particular, we're seeking ways to provide Firefox users a deeper understanding of and control over the flow of personal information online.”

Mozilla's opt-out feature would be more user-friendly than existing cookie-based solutions offered by advertising networks, Mozilla said.

“We believe the header-based approach has the potential to be better for the web in the long run because it is a clearer and more universal opt-out mechanism than cookies or blacklists,” Fowler said.

The drawback of Mozilla's approach, however, is that it would require both browser makers and websites to get on-board for it to be fully effective, he added. The browser maker has proposed that this feature be considered for upcoming releases of Firefox and asked for feedback from the Mozilla community.

Jeremiah Grossman, founder and CTO of web application security firm WhiteHat Security, told SCMagazineUS.com on Monday, that he supports the concept of the 'do not track' browser function, but said it should be enabled by default.  

“What we have learned in security is that unless it's secure or private by default, it really doesn't matter,” Grossman said. “It's difficult for a user to find a feature buried three clicks deep and understand what it is.”

But, gaining buy-in from advertising networks is likely to pose a challenge for Mozilla, he said.

“The ad networks will hate it, but the FTC will back it up,” Grossman said.

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