Some web browsers provides a free feature called ‘do not track’. In practice, this only goes as far as ‘telling’ advertising networks / other websites and applications that we want to opt-out of tracking for purposes like behavioural advertising.
The indigenous San tribespeople inhabiting the dry, deserted parts of Southern Africa have an exceptional ability to track down wild animals by examining the footprints they leave in the sand. These tell them the state of the animal’s health and the direction in which they are heading. Expert ones may even circle round ahead of their prey, and wait for it to arrive while hidden in an ambush.
The same principle applies to the systems observing what we are doing on the internet. We leave tracks in ‘cyber sand’ everywhere we go. A ‘like’ here and a ‘click’ there soon aligns us with a marketing persona and typecasts us as such. With sufficient information accumulated, these systems are able to predict our current sphere of interest, and send us marketing suggestions without human intervention.
We have become accustomed to having our behaviour monitored, albeit in ways different from the Internet. We treat closed-circuit television in public places as ‘a necessary evil’, and we do not object to the municipality billing our account as we drive through congested inner-city areas.
In a similar way, web analytics programs discard returning visits when counting unique landings. Other programs record our behaviour as we navigate sites to improve user interfaces and experience. Some even monitor us in the conversion funnel, so they know which piece of copy finally hooked our attention.
Many people regard this as a genuine attempt to deliver quality service, while frowning on third party attempts to purchase our profiles. Certainly, we should welcome our bank asking security questions when we log on using an unfamiliar computer. Pro-trackers would argue there is little difference between this, and a clerk in a banking hall interrogating a stranger drawing cash from our account.
Not everybody agrees with this position. Many regard it as an invasion of their privacy because they have no control of what happens to their information. Some web browsers provides a free feature called ‘do not track’. In practice, this only goes as far as ‘telling’ advertising networks / other websites and applications that we want to opt-out of tracking for purposes like behavioural advertising.
Many trackers choose to ignore this. In reality, browsers have little idea of what happens to our information either. Proponents of a Do Not Track Standard want to go further. Some of us have made concrete proposals to governments.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation believes that we should not sacrifice our independence on the altar of behavioural advertising. It also agrees that limited tracking is essential to allow cookies to enrich the browser’s experience. It therefore proposes a solution to the problem that has become the de facto Do Not Track Standard.
Would this be an ideal solution in a perfect world, where a benign administrator manages the Internet on our behalf? The EFF proposal falls short because there is no central regulator to publish it, and no central authority to enforce transgressions in the vast world of cyberspace were this practical. It needs the willing collaboration of all browsers and all websites. This is unlikely to happen in the near future. We must do something ourselves, if we want to stop behavioural advertising in its tracks.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation is one of the leading non-profit organization defending civil liberties in the digital world. It champions free expression, user privacy and innovation throughout the digital world, and opposes illegal surveillances, defends free speech online, and supports emerging freedom-enhancing technologies. It has proposed a universal opt out mechanism to governments. This represents the cutting edge of Do Not Track technology as we write.
You can see if you have enabled Do Not Track in the bottom left corner of this page – if you managed to do it you will see this text:
You are not being tracked since your browser is reporting that you do not want to. This is a setting of your browser so you won’t be able to opt-in until you disable the ‘Do Not Track’ feature.
Privafox is a browser with a decent privacy level set by default, and it will support the Do Not Track standard by default, read more about Privafox