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, 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.

7 comments about "Browser Solutions: The Geeks Rush In ".
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  1. Tim Sullivan from Cendyn, February 11, 2011 at 12:56 p.m.

    I believe we are now reaching the point where large ad-supported publishers should block access to their content when a browser is blocking their ads. This is an ad supported business. If consumers want free access to The New York Times website, for example, they will see advertising or the NYT can't pay their staff to continue to deliver compelling content. If the ads are blocked publishers should throw up a message explaining that their content is supported by sponsors and the ads can not be decoupled from the content. This screen could also provide a description of the publishers ad tracking policies and provide a way for the consumer to opt out of behavioral tracking but not all advertising. If the ads are non-negotiable, I think most people would prefer relevant, targeted ads. If this were to be implemented across all the major news websites it would go a long way towards educating the public about the positive aspects of ad targeting and the importance of supporting quality content with sponsorship dollars.

  2. Fred Leo from Ad Giants, February 11, 2011 at 1:12 p.m.

    I've found Abine's TACO plug in enlightening for seeing and managing all kinds of trackery.

  3. Howie Goldfarb from Blue Star Strategic Marketing, February 11, 2011 at 1:56 p.m.

    Very interesting stuff Steve. Google I get. Getting someone to use Chrome vs FireFox is huge. I block all ads with FireFox Ad Blocker Plus and No Scripts. This would be catastrophic to Google if everyone used this because it blocks Ad Servers and Google's Paid Search results. And targeting means clients of Google could target better and thus need to buy less ads!

    Microsoft not sure how many Ads get blocked since I didn't think they were a big digital ad server but Bing is like Google with paid search so they too hope people use IE or Chrome and not Firefox.

    FireFox I don't get since they already provide many tools, ones like I mentioned and also Ghostery which you once wrote about which was too clunky for me to use.

  4. Howie Goldfarb from Blue Star Strategic Marketing, February 11, 2011 at 1:57 p.m.

    Tim I disagree. Give me a reason to pay for the content. People don't click on the Ads anyway. Digital advertising to date has been a massive failure and fleecing of brands. So expect more pay walls as it is. I am all for pay walls.

  5. Tim Sullivan from Cendyn, February 11, 2011 at 2:19 p.m.

    Chief Alien, I can appreciate that sentiment, but unfortunately almost every effort at erecting pay-walls has failed. The free content genie was out of the bottle years ago and I don't see how we can go back.

    Our advertising clients consistently see in excess of 5 to 1 returns on their digital advertising spend. They don't feel fleeced at all. Annual advertising revenue is in the billions at Google and Facebook, and in the millions at thousands of smaller companies that make up the digital advertising ecosystem. I think many people would disagree with your assertion that digital advertising has been a failure.

  6. Cassandra Serrano from GannettLocal, February 11, 2011 at 5:26 p.m.

    Tim- I agree that most consumer concerns come from a lack of education. Give me a targeted ad (possibly with an offer for something I'm interested in) over a generic ad any day--- I don't believe it's possible for ads to go away completely unless the content is paid, which I imagine would be a small segment. Look at Pandora for instance, how many users are willing to listen to the brief commercials to avoid paying a subscription?

  7. Bruce May from Bizperity, February 11, 2011 at 8:19 p.m.

    We are a long way from a real solution on this. These browser controls will be little used and therefore useless. Privacy law is likely going to evolve in awkward ways that will satisfy no one. Most consumers simply won't care but the minority will have a loud voice, as with the recent win by Jessica Pineda in the California Supreme Court that agreed with Pineda that Williams-Sonoma violated California law that bans marketers from asking credit card purchasers for personal identification information... her zip code was combined with other information to identify her address so they could send her marketing collateral. (See Wendy Davis’s story in Daily Online Examiner today). The way in which information is filtered and recombined to identify individuals in ways that they find invasive is the real test here... not whether they accept our value proposition regarding the value of the ads they are served.

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