by Mike Dailey on August 30, 2011

According to a joint survey by the University of Pennsylvania and University of California-Berkeley, 84% of consumers object to being tracked online, with many seeing it as a violation of their online privacy.  With that type of user feedback, it is not surprising that this week’s launch of a “Do Not Track” option by the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) was met with staunch criticism by privacy and consumer advocates. 

Popular Internet social networking and search engine sites including Google, Microsoft and Facebook now display the IAB opt out icon, a turquoise triangle with a lowercase letter “i” at the center, referred to as the Advertising Option Icon.  While the IAB “Do Not Track” option is passed off as a way to “opt out” of having web usage habits tracked, in reality it only allows the user to opt out of the targeted internet sales and online advertising displayed on a web page, which is based on the tracked browsing and search habits of the user.  IAB member sites are still free to track user activity, even though the user believes they have been given a choice in the matter.

The IAB is urging many of its 500 members to adopt the “Do Not Track” icon and opt out practice, but the usefulness of the option is being questioned by consumer advocacy groups.  Consumer Watchdog’s Carmen Balber stated, “all it does is give consumers who happen to find the blue triangle the option of clicking through to an opt-out page published by (IAB) members who choose to use the icon.”  Balber continues, “The IAB’s program does not give consumers the ability to opt out of tracking – either in theory or practice.”  The IAB “Do Not Track” option follows no regulatory or legal guidelines, and is self-regulated by the IAB itself.  This calls into question the purpose and intention of such an option, and who’s interest it intends to serve. 

There are other options available to the Internet user community, such as the browser-based technology that enables users to opt out of tracking by web sites they do not visit, commonly analytics services, advertising networks, and social network platforms.  The Do Not Track project is a “collaboration of numerous researchers, advocacy groups, and technology companies,” which in itself goes a long way to ensuring cooperation and oversight that takes consumer interests into account. 

Do Not Track utilizes a web browser preference option, currently supported in IE9, IE8, and Firefox, that passes a user’s opt out preference to visited web sites using an HTTP header.  If the web site honors the header, tracking of the user activity is disabled.  While several large third party sites already honor Do Not Track headers, many others have simply refused to adopt or support this privacy option. 

Self-regulation is not the answer and offers no viable alternative to ensure the reliable protection of user privacy on the web.  As proposed standards such as Do Not Track continue to push for adoption and support, without enforceable regulation or Internet governance, web sites remain free to violate the privacy of users simply because they have access to the data collected without their approval.

Visit the Microsoft Do Not Track Test Page to determine if your web browser is configured with or supports “Do Not Track” preferences.

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