Wednesday, August 29, 2012

What is "Do Not Track"? - A Quick Explanation

Internet Tracking

Tracking people on the Internet is not a new thing. Beginning in 1994 with the introduction of cookies, websites have been tracking who visits their site and what they do for a long time. This tracking has been used for every conceivable reason, from tracking user accounts to targeting advertisements to offering personalized suggestions to shoppers. They are also used by SEO companies as a part of their web analytics programs. Tracking of any sort is such a common thing that most people take it for granted, marketers use it out of hand, and many consumers do not even realize they are being tracked.

Opting Out

Another cookie that can leave crumbs behind.
The core of the Do Not Track project is giving a user the ability to opt out of tracking on the Internet. While disabling cookies is a start, some sites may not respect that. Others have non-cookie methods for tracking users. The goal of Do Not Track is to establish a standard protocol for opting out of tracking.

The idea is that a user can enable a setting in their web browser that will signal a bit of code at the start of any web page. This signal will tell the website that this particular user wishes to remain anonymous, have no information tracked about them, and opt out of any possible tracking. Currently, every major browser has an option for Do Not Track, including Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari, and Opera.

Privacy Concerns

The biggest reason a user may wish to opt out of tracking is, of course, privacy. Many users simply do not want anyone else to know what they do online, whether or not they are doing anything out of the ordinary. They do not want personalized advertisements or product recommendations.

As it stands, websites are not currently forced to comply with the Do Not Track standard. Many sites do, as a gesture of good faith to their users. However, because the code works on the honor system, it stands to reason that most people hunting and gathering information will not comply with a Do Not Track signal. In other words, the sites that collect information and use it in ways many users would find issue with are generally the sites that would not respect their desire to opt out.

In the News

Do Not Track is a current and hot issue, deeply contested by privacy advocates, advertising agencies, and other involved groups. Legislation is ongoing, and no decision has yet been reached. The next few years will see a fierce battle between the companies that rely on tracking users and the advocates of the users that wish to remain anonymous.

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