Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Browsers to Add Tracking Blockers

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This may be somewhat old news by now, but given the hubbub last night that Apple and some makers of apps for the iPhone are getting sued over tracking users without consent, it seems that the struggle between privacy and features will never be old news.

Back at the dawn of the web, the notion of surfing anonymously was pretty compelling. Users in the early days had enough technical know-how to understand that privacy could not be guaranteed and at the very least a combination of IP logging and old-fashioned real-world tracking could often get an interested party the identity of someone engaging in nefarious activity. The key benefit to that process (for users) is that for most organizations it wasn't worth the bother (either time or money). Privacy was maintained simply for lack of effort.

Fast forward to today's world where online ads can track your habits and preferences, where Facebook is regularly lambasted for sharing too much information, where mobile devices can track where you are at any time, where people use social media with the curious expectation that they are guaranteed some privacy, and so on...

Microsoft sees this as an opportunity to push its coming web browser, Internet Explorer 9, to the fore by offering a new feature called Tracking Protection. Microsoft will be rolling this feature out in the next beta release due early in 2011. In Microsoft's words, the feature will do the following:

  1. IE9 will offer consumers a new opt-in mechanism ("Tracking Protection") to identify and block many forms of undesired tracking.
  2. "Tracking Protection Lists" will enable consumers to control what third-party site content can track them when they're online.

This is a little different from the Federal Trade Commission's request that browser makers implement a "do not track" feature. In the FTC's world, this feature sets a flag for all sites you visit asking the web site and/or ad service not to track you. The FTC cannot force anyone to honor that, however, so it's a mostly empty request. This is where the IE9 feature is so compelling — it's intended to just block the tracking outright.

Mozilla isn't missing the boat on this. Even though a similar feature was in development in June, it was pulled (for conflicting reasons) but made its reappearance just a few days ago. Mozilla's chief executive stated in an interview that [t]echnology that supports something like a 'Do Not Track' button is needed and we will deliver in the first part of next year. He was speaking about Firefox 4, which is still in beta. This puts Firefox's offering out there around the same time as IE9's.

Now that two major browsers will be developing a feature in parallel with a similar name and set of functionality, it will be interesting to see how it is implemented. While the features both Microsoft and Mozilla are discussing have mostly been in both browsers in some form since the last full release, activating those features isn't exactly intuitive for the novice user. Now comes the struggle of creating a user interface that is simple, still provides enough detail and control, and isn't so far removed from the other browser's interface that users who use both aren't horribly confused.

Whether these features are enough to satisfy the FTC, consumers, or even the ad networks is still up in the air. Whether these features will be easy to use, however, seems unlikely given browser configuration options over the years. If that happens, it may end up protecting ad networks for now.

Related

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Updated: January 24, 2011

2 comments:

  1. There are two important things that are new in the IE9 implementation: 1/ tracking protection lists can be curated by anyone, meaning consumers will have variety and refinement in their tracking preferences (privacychoice.org will offer them), and 2/ unlike current add-ons, tracking protection lists are implemented through a web-page process, so there is no download or installation required.

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  2. I am going to guess that you are associated with that site (given your user name).You are correct that the IE9 Tracking Protection List (TPL) can be created by anyone. It will, however, be blank by default. Consumers will need to cultivate lists based on how each may affect their browsing experience. Failing that, novice users will need some direction on where to go to get a starter list, perhaps from a trusted (or at least recognized) source like FTC, BBB, EFF, [insert acronym of choice here], etc.

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