Diving into 'Do Not Track'

Four myths you should know about Internet "Do Not Track" technology.

ByABC News
February 23, 2011, 5:57 PM

Feb. 24, 2011— -- Internet privacy is the new black (or at least it's the new green). A recent eye-opening investigative series in the Wall Street Journal exposed the complex web of companies that are "tracking" your every move online, and just how much information about you and your online behavior they're collecting in the process.

It's been nearly a decade since Congress first tried and failed to pass a privacy law. That void is a cause of consumer outcry, and Washington is finally listening.

Congress now has several privacy bills — delivered or promised — ready for debate and more are poised for introduction. The Federal Trade Commission and the Commerce Department have both weighed in on how best to approach online consumer privacy. These efforts have converged to create a raucous conversation about how technology and policy can work in concert to protect and enhance Internet privacy.

Enter Do Not Track.

When you visit a typical commercial website, that website is far from the only one that knows what you have been doing on that site: third-party companies typically contract with websites for permission to track your behavior across many, many sites. Some websites, such as dictionary.com, contract with hundreds of these data collectors (many of whom are advertising networks or are associated with advertising networks).

The information gleaned from your online wanderings is valuable and can be sold to data aggregators who will update your digital dossier or to companies in the advertising industry that will use it to target ads at you. In other words, what happens on dictionary.com -- and most popular websites -- does not stay on dictionary.com.

Many responsible individual advertising networks allow consumers to opt out of this third-party data collection. But consumers cannot be reasonably expected to hunt down every ad network out there and tell them, one at a time, "Do not track me!"

Some self-regulatory initiatives are taking important steps to give consumers more information about behavioral advertising and to make opting out easier and more persistent. For example, the Digital Advertising Alliance is working on technology to put an icon in all targeted ads to let consumers find out why that particular ad showed up in the first place.

The DAA also allows consumers to opt out of all its member companies' serving of behaviorally targeted ads (though not the tracking itself) with just a couple of clicks. Unfortunately, this opt-out is cookie-based, so if you delete your cookies out of concerns for your privacy, you're erasing the instruction to DAA member companies not to track you. (Google recently released a "Keep My Opt Outs" add-on for its Chrome browser that fixes this problem.)

However, even if you do manage to opt out of the behavioral ads of the 60 member companies in the DAA, this doesn't stop the more than 200 other tracking companies out there from following you around the web.

But if web browsers had a Do Not Track feature, then consumers would finally have a simple option to say, "Do not track me!" to every tracking site. The browser companies have recently promised to build is a Do Not Track setting that would allow consumers to prevent companies from tracking them.

Each of the major browser makers -- Google, Microsoft and Mozilla -- is taking a different approach to Do Not Track technology. But Do Not Track is under attack from some who prefer the current balance of power between consumers and trackers to remain tilted in favor of the trackers.

This power struggle has fertilized a number of growing myths on both sides of the debate -- it's time to do some weeding.