EFF-led group wants to give do-not-track some bite

For years now, checking the “do-not-track” option on your browser has been little more than wishful thinking on the part of users who care about privacy online. But now a group led by the Electronic Frontier Foundation is looking to make that a more meaningful action.

The EFF and others have published a standard policy it hopes advertisers, analytics companies and publishers will adopt in order to respect the wishes of users who don’t want to be tracked online. Getting the support needed to make a real difference will be an uphill battle, they acknowledge.

The policy document specifies what a website needs to do to honor the wishes of users whose browsers have DNT (do not track) turned on. DNT is an option in browsers and mobile operating systems (iOS and Firefox OS) that uses an HTTP header to tell websites that the users doesn’t want to be tracked.

“This initiative is the first credible attempt to define “do not track” as a privacy mechanism that means what consumers reasonably believe it to mean,” said Casey Oppenheim, CEO at privacy tool company Disconnect, which was involved in drafting the policy.

The W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) and others have done a great job defining DNT as a signaling mechanism, but there is still no consensus on defining what DNT actually means, according to Oppenheim. The advertising and data collection industries have essentially argued that “do not track” means “do not target,” meaning tracking is fine, but the collected data can’t be used to target ads, he said.

Advocacy group European Digital Rights gave the news from EFF a thumbs up. Because the W3C is still a long way from getting consensus on what DNT means, the development of such a policy outside the W3C is welcome, according to EDR’s community and communications manager Heini Jarvinen.

From EFF’s and Disconnect’s point of view, when users who have opted for DNT interact with a compliant website or domain, they should be treated as someone about whom nothing is known or remembered. However, the policy allows for some exceptions. Aggregated and anonymized records can be kept and used for modeling and usage statistics, according to EFF. Sites that obtain clear and informed consent before collecting data, remain DNT-compliant, it said.

The pitch is that this will be good for users as well as advertisers, analytics companies, and publishers. Along with tools like Disconnect, Privacy Badger, and AdBlock, the policy lets consumers protect themselves from invisible tracking on the Web, according to Oppenheim. And companies that support the standard show they respect their users’ right to privacy and have more opportunities to interact with users who otherwise could block them altogether, he said.

Also backing the effort are publishing site Medium, analytics service Mixpanel, AdBlock, and privacy centric search engine DuckDuckGo. For example, Mixpanel will be rolling out a compliant analytics service that will make it simple for any publisher to collect analytics data in a manner consistent with the policy.

The challenge is get a critical mass of supporters onboard, and a lot more are needed to make a real difference.

“This standard has the potential to bridge the gap between privacy concerns and online advertising. We just need more partners to commit,” Oppenheim said.

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