A new digital arms race is looming. Users, advertisers, browser companies, and website owners are pitted against one another in a battle over online advertisements and the way individual consumer information is used to deliver targeted ads.
The Do Not Track (DNT) header is the proposed HTTP header field DNT that requests that a web application disable either its tracking or cross-site user tracking (the ambiguity remains unresolved) of an individual user. In December 2010, Microsoft announced support for the DNT mechanism in its Internet Explorer 9 web browser. Mozilla’s Firefox became the first browser to implement the feature
The header field name is DNT and it currently accepts three values: 1 in case the user does not want to be tracked (opt out), 0 in case the user consents to being tracked (opt in), or null (no header sent) if the user has not expressed a preference. The default behavior is not to send the header, until the user chooses to enable the setting via their browser.
What’s the big deal? We expect to see ads for baby clothes and diapers when we visit an online maternity store. But some object to the practice known as “behavioral retargeting,” where the same ads follow us and show up on unrelated sites afterwards. According to a study last year led by Chris Hoofnagle and Ashkan Soltani, cookies were detected on the top 100 websites. They also found an average of 57 cookies per website and 100 or more cookies on one-fifth of the top websites.
Given this growing online data collection, privacy groups, government regulators, and others have argued that users should have a choice. If people don’t want to be tracked across multiple sites, then they should be able to indicate that choice through their browser settings: “Do Not Track.”
Already, 17% of Firefox users have activated the signal and that comes to 4 trillion do-not-track signals sent by Firefox each month, Anderson said. Almost all are ignored. That’s because the signals themselves don’t block tracking. Instead, they communicate users’ preferences, but ad networks and publishers are free to treat that information as they see fit.
According to the Lou Mastria, head of the Digital Advertising Alliance: “These actions do not advance consumer choice, and they will have a significant adverse effect on users’ Internet experience,”. Mastria stressed that third-party cookies are not intrinsically a threat to user’ privacy, but rather that they are a necessary mechanism to subsidize free content and services on the Web.
It’s still extremely early to call a winner in this battle, despite the growing tension between advertisers and browsers, however it’s mildly shortsighted of privacy groups to worry about tracking. The truth is that while you may be “followed” by advertising on your journey around the web but you are a data point rather than a specific, known individual.