Supporters of the Do Not Track standard have warned its detractors that they won’t stand for any nonsense, and have given backers an encouraging nudge in the direction of fair implementation.
In Europe, Neelie Kroes, the VP of the European Commission responsible for the Digital Agenda, has just given a speech in which she cautioned the industry against ignoring Do Not Track, messing around with its standards or abusing the cookie system.
Speaking at the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS) in Brussels she said, “Standardisation work is not going according to plan. In fact, I am increasingly concerned. About the delay, and about the turn taken by the discussions hosted by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). I think that won’t come as a surprise to you. And I know that my colleagues across the Atlantic, at the Federal Trade Commission, feel the same.”
So what is the problem? According to Kroes the problem is a watering down of the standard, and she repeated her earlier calls for firm rules that actually protect the individual.
“For the avoidance of doubt, I will say it again today: the DNT standard must be rich and meaningful enough to make a difference, when it comes to protecting people’s privacy,” she said.
“It should build on the principle of informed consent, giving people control over their information. And, indeed, it must be designed to let people choose to not be tracked. The clue is in the name: do NOT track.”
European Minister though she might be, Kroes also aimed her warning at those American companies that ultimately could make or break the standard. She’s looking at the internet giants, and their implementation of the rules when she says that European regulators won’t stand for any nonsense.
“I mean everyone,” she said. “Including American companies. Because if you want to track Europeans, you have to play by our rules. Our new data protection framework is crystal-clear on that point.Including online businesses. In the long term, the online economy won’t grow if it acts against the grain, against the wishes of ordinary users, against their need for trust. And under such conditions, nor can online services prosper.”
Over the pond Bi-Partisan Privacy Caucus co-chairs Joe Barton and Edward Markey expressed their disappointment at statements from the Digital Advertising Alliance that call for avoidance of the standard and ignoring of its guidance.
“Privacy is an issue that affects everyone, and the Digital Advertising Alliance’s announcement made clear that it puts profits over privacy. If consumers want to be tracked online, they should have to opt-in to be tracked, instead of the other way around,” they said.
“This is why we are disappointed to hear the Digital Advertising Alliance insist that it will not honor Microsoft’s “Do Not Track” default and will not penalise companies that ignore it.”
The Digital Advertising Alliance is a self regulatory group for online behavioural advertisers.
The move is a reversal for Google, which has resisted supporting the technology that lets users opt out of the online tracking conducted by websites and advertisers.
Google’s change of heart came as the White House today pushed a privacy bill of rights and said it would introduce new online privacy legislation in Congress.
Chrome joins other browsers — Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 9 (IE9) and Mozilla’s Firefox — which can already transmit special information with every HTTP page request that tells sites the user does not want to be tracked.
Apple’s Safari currently supports Do Not Track, although turning it on requires a user to select “Send Do Not Track HTTP Header” from the “Developer” menu on the browser; Apple will make the setting easier to find in the Privacy section of Safari’s Preferences pane this summer when it releases OS X Mountain Lion.
Opera, from the Norwegian browser maker Opera Software, does not support Do Not Track. Two weeks ago, however, Opera launched an experimental build of its desktop browser with support for for the anti-tracking technology.
Mozilla was the first browser maker to add Do Not Track support to its software.
The silver lining of today’s announcement is that Chrome’s adoption of Do Not Track puts the option in front of a majority of Internet users: According to Web metrics company Net Applications, the browsers that now, or will later this year, support the header request accounted for 98% of those used last month.
Federal Trade Commission Chairman Jon Liebowitz this week singled out Google for not adopting “Do Not Track,” the privacy feature that allows consumers the ability to opt out of online tracking by Web sites and marketing entities.
In an interview Monday with Politico, Liebowitz called out Google for not supporting Do Not Track in its Chrome browser.
Noting that Do Not Track had gathered momentum, Liebowitz said, “Apple just announced they’re going to put it in their Safari browser. So that gives you Apple, Microsoft and Mozilla. Really the only holdout — the only company that hasn’t evolved as much as we would like on this — is Google.”
Do Not Track has been promoted by the FTC and by privacy advocates including the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), as the best way to help consumers protect their privacy.
The technology requires sites and advertisers to recognize incoming requests from browsers as an opt-out demand by the user. The information is transmitted as part of the HTTP header.
As Liebowitz said, Microsoft and Mozilla have added Do Not Track header support to their Internet Explorer 9 (IE9) and Firefox 4 browsers. While Apple hasn’t confirmed that the next version of Safari will include Do Not Track, developers have reported finding the feature in early editions bundled with Mac OS X 10.7, aka “Lion,” the upgrade slated to ship this summer.
That leaves Google’s Chrome and Opera’s browser on the outside. But neither plans to implement Do Not Track anytime soon.
Chrome has its own ideas about privacy, and also won’t commit to Do Not Track.
“We continue to offer the Keep My Opt-Outs plug-in for Chrome … which already works to permanently opt users out of most ad profiling,” a Google spokesman said in an email reply to questions.
Google declined to comment on whether it is considering adding Do Not Track header support to Chrome, but seemingly left the door ajar. “We’re encouraged that the standards bodies are working on these different header approaches, and will continue to be involved closely,” the spokesman said.