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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  • James on

    While I get the principle of choice, does anyone REALLY want to be tracked?  I can't imagine someone seeing the setting and think "Oh...well I WANT to be tracked <click>".  It's almost like a seatbelt....laws were made to have people do the right thing.

  • Anonymous on

    Microsoft have made it very easy to either enable or disable tracking (it is a very visible option), and Fielding is being very condescending to suggest anything else. That is the real issue. The people who are really destroying this are those who see their ad revenues crashing - those who think they know better than their customers - those who feel they have the right to violate their customers' privacy whenever they feel like it. Haven't they heard of democracy? Why should I use their products (and trust them) when their views on my privacy are so clearly negative. Let's make it very simple. Have a very simple screen that asks the user the really relevant question - "Do you want all your actions to be tracked by people and companies, unknown to you, so that they can interfere with your browsing experience by displaying ads, amongst other dubious things?" As James says, there would be no take up. Fielding is abusing customers who are relatively computer illiterate and is condescending in his criticism - "you won't let us earn money from your data, so we'll ignore your right to privacy." Unfortunately, as happened with TV ads (that no-one wanted), techniques to prevent tracking are probably doomed to failure for most people who don't know how to limit their exposure. The US authorities seem to have little regard for personal privacy. The EU should investigate Fielding and the others for violating EU citizens' privacy, by ignoring this setting, and for breaking competition laws by penalising a specific product that they don't like. A nice hefty fine might make a difference to their overlord ambitions.
  • Anonymous on

    Before we ask consumers to make a choice, we need to inform them about all the tracking that's going on. Most of them have very little understanding of this--mostly because the companies that do it have kept very quiet about it. Also, the whole point of the proposed DNT was to allow consumers to express their choice. What alternative mechanism would you propose?

  • Bob on

    Tracking is everywhere. Even this page has 4 trackers at work. I use IE10 and I have consciously selected Do Not Track.  Apart from this meaningless setting, I use Do Not Track + from  Abine and it cuts a lot of the advertising crap. It also allows a faster browsing experience because the network bandwidth that I am paying for is less choked by useless (to me at least) crap.

    Companies that ignore this setting will not get my business. Amazon is one company that gets through to me with ads because of the way they do it. So I bait them. I actually browse the products they are pushing at me and I load up my cart and wishlist with them and then close the browser. They then send me emails bringing the cart to my attention. The really silly part about it all is that Amazon know that I live in Australia and many of the products they are pushing they will not ship to Australia. How dumb is that?

  • Anonymous on

    I personally like the customized user experience offerred by tracking, but elect to dump my internet cache everytime I close my browser.  That's how I have chosen to manage privacy issues.

  • Anonymous on

    The question I would like answered is "why are'nt governments doing anything about this ?"

    is there actually a non corrupt governemnt anywhere in the world that actualyl will od the right thing ?


  • Anonymous on

    Sounds like the US Congress in action ......

  • Tinman57 on

      If ad companies had of been honest from the start and not tracked everyone secretly (before they got found out), and not made their ads so flashy and bandwidth hungry, I wouldn't have minded.  But they went the sneaky route, so I installed all kinds of tracking and ad blocking software.

  • Joshbw on

    Microsoft has chosen a setting where the default is privacy and users have to OPT-IN to be tracked.  Opt-In is as much a choice as Opt-Out, and Fielding is dishonest about asserting otherwise, as is Yahoo.  While they try to sell us on the experience of targetted ads, I think they realize the vast majority of us don't buy into that BS and wouldn't willingly opt into it.  Fortunately IE also has an anti-tracking blacklist feature that blackholes tracking cookies and doesn't leave the choice up to advertisers like yahoo and google.

    This setting is generally consistent with all of the other privacy settings in Win8 - you have to opt into customer experience tracking, and other anonymous metric tracking, with the "Express" settings during installation by default not enabling these trackings.

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