Google and Mozilla have both announced new browser initiatives that will allow users to opt out of having their activities tracked by online advertisers. These developments are at least partially in response to the “Do Not Track” lists proposed by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission.
In December, the FTC released a 122-page report [PDF] outlining the concept, which has been called a “Do Not Call” list for online behavioral advertising. Rather than make calls for legislation, the FTC has pushed for browser makers and advertisers to self-regulate.
Although targeting the same problem, Mozilla and Google are are approaching opt-out online behavioral advertising from different directions.
Firefox: Do Not Track HTTP Header
On Sunday, Mozilla formally announced its plans to build a do-not-track feature into future versions of Firefox. Alex Fowler, the global privacy and public policy leader at Mozilla, explained the proposed feature on his blog:
“When the feature is enabled and users turn it on, web sites will be told by Firefox that a user would like to opt out of OBA. 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.”
Mozilla’s Sid Stamm has written his thoughts on the proposal and he explains why the HTTP header approach was chosen fro Firefox:
“Currently, to opt out of online behavioral advertisements, you have to get a site to set an opt-out cookie so they won’t track you. There are various web sites that help out (NAI, IAB UK) and there are Firefox add-ons (TACO, beef taco, etc.) that can streamline this process. But this is a bit of a hack; it’s nearly impossible to maintain a list of all the sites whose tracking people may want to opt-out from. It would be more attractive if there was one universal opt-out signal that would tell all sites you want to opt out.”
Instead, Stamm proposes the use of a HTTP header that is transmitted with every HTTP request and that lets ad networks know a user does not want to bee tracked.
This approach of using a Do-Not-Track HTTP header differs from some other opt-out online behavioral advertising solutions, which utilize either opt-out cookies or an opt-out registry. Michael Hanson from Mozilla Labs has posted a technical analysis of Mozilla’s proposal on his blog.
One advantage of using a header and not a cookie to carry opt-out information is that even if user clears his or her browser cache, the opt-out settings will still remain in place.
As The Wall Street Journal points out, however, for Mozilla’s tool to work, “tracking companies would need to agree to not monitor users who enable the do-not-track feature.” As of this writing, no companies have publicly agreed to participate. Mozilla will have to convince advertisers to comply with its header proposal for this idea to actually gain traction.
The Google Approach
Meanwhile, Google has released a new extension for Google Chrome called Keep My Opt-Outs. The Google Code page for Keep My Opt-Outs describes the extension as a way to “permanently [opt] your browser out of online ad personalization via cookies.”
The extension works with Google-served ads as well as with ads from companies that have signed up with AboutAds.info.
Last month, Microsoft announced that IE 9 will include a way for users to create lists of sites or companies that are blocked from tracking their data. This is significant because of reports that Microsoft previously removed similar features from Internet Explorer 8 at the behest of online advertisers.
The features and plugins proposed by Google, Mozilla, Microsoft and others are a good start in making it easier for users to opt-out of online behavioral ads; however, these solutions will only work if advertisers and browser makers can work together in a cohesive way.
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