Calling Foul on the Political Football That is Do Not Track

It looks like it’s time for a do-over for DNT. The oft-maligned specification has become—like many other standards efforts before it—a political football. Parties with interests on both sides of the issue have their own agendas, cannot agree on semantics and ignore, in this case, what should be the heart of the issue for users—a clear personal choice about browsing privacy.

It looks like it’s time for a do-over for DNT. The oft-maligned specification has become—like many other standards efforts before it—a political football. Parties with interests on both sides of the issue have their own agendas, cannot agree on semantics and ignore, in this case, what should be the heart of the issue for users—a clear personal choice about browsing privacy.

For the uninitiated, DNT or Tracking Preference Expression (DNT) as it’s known in W3C circles, is a specification that expresses how tracking preferences in browser headers should be defined. In short, it permits or denies tracking of your activities online by ad networks serving you targeted advertising based on your browsing.

The wrangling has brought a number of parties to the table, most notably Microsoft, Adobe, the Apache Foundation and now Yahoo. Microsoft kick-started the latest firestorm when it turned on the DNT signal by default in Internet Explorer 10, which was released on Friday along with Windows 8. By doing so, Apache and others argued that Microsoft removed the choice from the user. Roy T. Fielding, co-founder of the Apache HTTP Server Project and went a step further and submitted a patch to the Web server that instructs it to ignore the DNT setting in IE10. He argued that DNT on by default is counter to the spec and does not represent a user’s choice.

Microsoft countered that the user is presented with the choice to turn DNT off during the Express setup configuration, something Fielding wasn’t buying.

“The decision to set DNT by default in IE10 has nothing to do with the user’s privacy. Microsoft knows full well that the false signal will be ignored, and thus prevent their own users from having an effective option for DNT even if their users want one,” Fielding wrote. “You can figure out why they want that. If you have a problem with it, choose a better browser.”

Yahoo was the latest to enter the fray. On Friday it also declared it would not recognize IE10’s default DNT signal, doing so in the name of preserving a personalized online experience for its users and a preference for its own Ad Interest Manager, which it says puts the tracking choice in a user’s hands.

“In principle, we support ‘Do Not Track (DNT). Unfortunately, because discussions have not yet resulted in a final standard for how to implement DNT, the current DNT signal can easily be abused,” Yahoo wrote on its policy blog. “Recently, Microsoft unilaterally decided to turn on DNT in Internet Explorer 10 by default, rather than at users’ direction. In our view, this degrades the experience for the majority of users and makes it hard to deliver on our value proposition to them. It basically means that the DNT signal from IE10 doesn’t express user intent.”

Cutting to the chase, however, and through the rhetoric, what this means is that Yahoo’s ability to deliver targeted ads to users is greatly inhibited by DNT. That’s its value proposition. Google doesn’t support DNT either in its Chrome browser (it does offer it as a browser extension) and Firefox defaults to the signal that the user has not made a choice.

DNT, in principle, is a noble effort. And like most noble efforts, nobility goes out the window as soon as people and money became involved. It’s time for a do-over on DNT. Blow it up with some TNT and bring user privacy and choice to the forefront. It may be a PollyAnna way of thinking, but let consumers make their own choice, and not be forced to use some default setting in a Web browser, a politically charged decision maker, or a powerful search engine with a vested interest in the outcome. How’s that for a novel concept?

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