Browser Solutions: The Geeks Rush In
Opt-Out Man may have to go in for a name change soon. The venerable method for removing oneself from behavioral targeting online is morphing quickly into a move towards more universal Do Not Track and even ad blocking tools. As our own Wendy Davis reports this morning, Microsoft will issue a refresh of its Internet Explorer browser today that goes beyond merely Do Not Track functionality. The new tools actually will let the user block content from some sites, especially third-party ads. The blocking will be based on blacklists established by TRUSTe, Abine and Privacy Choice.
Because the Microsoft method of updating content is often done in background and without much user notification, it is hard to say whether the IE9 build I downloaded this morning actually includes the feature Microsoft is talking about. Mozilla made it quite clear when it updated the Firefox 4 beta this week that Do Not Track features had been added, but more on that implementation below.
The FTC had mentioned in its most recent report on behavioral targeting that it felt a browser-based solution was the likeliest answer to giving consumer ultimate control over their data sharing. As we have seen in our own opt-out travels in recent weeks, as well-intentioned as some of these efforts may be, the ad network landscape is simply too fragmented and works under too many unfamiliar names. Consumers simply do not know the entities involved in this ecology, and they certainly can't tell whether opting out through the Power I icon or NAI or PrivacyChoice fully covers their range of online activities. A browser-based approach seems more tenable, if only someone could make one that is any clearer and easier for consumers to use than the current opt-out mechanisms.
At the risk of speaking too soon, it seems apparent that even browser-based solutions to consumer data control will suffer from Geek Speak. This solution hands the problem over to engineers. To wit, the "Tracking Protection" feature in IE9 is nested down among the Add-ons. When I double-click on the feature, I get a pop-up box called "Personalized Tracking Protection List" with a rather vague explanation: "When you visit multiple websites that contain content from the same provider, such as a map, advertisement or web measurement tools, some information about your visits might be shared with the content provider. If you choose to block content, portions of the website you visit might not be available."
As Scooby Doo would say, "Ruh?" What "content"? Are we talking ads or web site features? What exactly does that paragraph say? It gets worse. The box below this "explanation" I gather is the blacklist. But in my IE9 the box is empty and there are no instructions for how to populate it. A counter below then lets me set a specific number as a command to "Show content from providers used by this number of websites you've visited."
"Raggy, Relp!" Considering that I still can't figure out what the two first items are telling me about this feature, then setting a number to it is pointless. Well "Relp" doesn't do much either. Tap on the text link to "Learn More about Tracking Protection," and all you get in the Help search is "Topic Not Found."
In terms of communicating with users, Mozilla is slightly better. The appropriately self-titled "Extreme Geekboy" at Mozilla is Sid Stamm, who oversees security and privacy issue. In a Firefox 4 build late last week, he added a browser function that sends a special header to all HTTP sites with a simple "DNT: 1". This header is supposed to tell ad networks and sites that you have opted out of tracking. Of course, its implementation and effect are only apparent if the players agree to obey the command. The actual implementation in Firefox is not found where you would expect it -- in the Privacy tab of the Options screen. Instead it is a check box in the Advanced setting menu. At least the command itself is clear: "Tell web sites I do not want to be tracked." Stamm is creating a demo site to show how the setting will likely affect a user's experience at a site.
Mozilla has also created a header for older versions of Firefox. It takes the form of an add-on, with the moniker Universal Behavioral Advertising Opt-Out. Of course even Mozilla admits in the add-on that "No advertising networks actually recognize and respect this yet so this tool doesn't currently do anything useful." Except perhaps giving the user a feeling of sticking it to the man, empty as it may be. The browser header effort is being spearheaded by DoNoTrack.us, a group of researchers from Stanford.
Obviously the Microsoft solution, insofar as we can understand it, allows for more specific control over tracking but adds complexity. It is also a radical blocking solution, which adds a new wrinkle to the browser-based solutions. Firefox's universal opt-out is a blunt instrument, however.
The notion of browser-based data management solutions is still deep in the labs and waiting for greater clarity.