After years of discussions, disagreements, and digressions, the Do Not Track header is supported by all of the major browsers. But because there’s no real requirement for sites or advertisers to respect it, DNT is not as effective as it could be. Now, the EFF, Disconnect, and several other organizations are publishing a new DNT standard they say is stronger and more realistic.
DNT is designed to help protect Web users from unwanted tracking by online ad companies and site operators. In practice, the standard is implemented as a header that users’ browsers send to sites expressing their DNT preferences. Sites that adopt DNT essentially pledge not to track or record visitors’ interactions with the site.
The idea behind DNT is nearly a decade old and the header has been implemented in all of the big browsers, including Firefox, Chrome, and Internet Explorer. But critics see the standard as weak because there’s no legal requirement for sites to adopt it or respect users’ preferences. The new proposed standard put forth by the EFF and its allies is meant to improve on the existing policy, thought it’s still a voluntary policy. Among the other companies involved in the new DNT policy are DuckDuckGo, Medium, Mixpanel, and AdBlock.
“We are greatly pleased that so many important Web services are committed to this powerful new implementation of Do Not Track, giving their users a clear opt-out from stealthy online tracking and the exploitation of their reading history,” said Peter Eckersley, chief computer scientist at the EFF. “These companies understand that clear and fair practices around analytics and advertising are essential not only for privacy but for the future of online commerce.”
One of the main issues standing in the way of the adoption of the current DNT standard is resistance from the ad industry. Sites and online advertisers rely on the ability to collect information about their users in order to better target more relevant ads. But many users see ads as nuisances and use extensions such as AdBlock to avoid them altogether. That eliminates a major source of revenue for many site operators, something that the members of the EFF’s new coalition say they understand.
“The failure of the ad industry and privacy groups to reach a compromise on DNT has led to a viral surge in ad blocking, massive losses for Internet companies dependent on ad revenue, and increasingly malicious methods of tracking users and surfacing advertisements online,” said Disconnect CEO Casey Oppenheim. “Our hope is that this new DNT approach will protect a consumer’s right to privacy and incentivize advertisers to respect user choice, paving a path that allows privacy and advertising to coexist.”
EFF has published information explaining the new standard and what it requires of site operators who choose to adopt it. One key point is that while the standard is voluntary, sites that adopt it should be prepared to live up to that decision.
“Companies supporting DNT do so voluntarily, but existing law generally requires companies to honor such voluntary commitments. Under such laws, a company that doesn’t do what it says it will do may be engaging in an unfair, deceptive or misleading trade practice. Consumer protection entities like the Federal Trade Commission and state attorneys general can take action against such deceptive practices,” the document says.