Google has confirmed that it will soon join Mozilla, Microsoft and Apple in adding a do-not-track setting to its browser, Chrome. With the move, Google is fulfilling a promise it made in February to start offering a browser-based do-not-track setting.
Despite the news, the browser-based approach to do-not-track seems to have lost momentum from earlier in the year, when everyone from the Federal Trade Commission to the online ad group Digital Advertising Alliance went on record as supporting the concept.
The move to develop browser-based headers gathered steam a few years ago, shortly after the FTC called on the industry to develop a simple way for consumers to opt out of all online tracking. Mozilla responded by creating a do-not-track header for Firefox; the other browser manufacturers followed suit.
In February, the initiative got a big boost from the Digital Advertising Alliance, which said it would require members to honor do-not-track settings. (Unlike browser settings that block cookies entirely, a do-not-track command only sends a signal to publishers and ad networks that users don't want to be tracked. Those companies then must decide how to respond.)
Since then, however, no one has been able to agree on what do-not-track actually means. Some advocates say that companies shouldn't collect any data from users who activate a do-not-track header. Other people say that companies should be able to gather information for purposes like analytics or frequency capping, but should stop collecting the type of data that will enable personalized ads.
The Internet standards group World Wide Web Consortium is trying to forge an agreement on that issue, but so far has had no luck.
Meanwhile, the definition of "track" isn't the only sticking point. Microsoft said in May that Internet Explorer 10 would have the do-not-track command activated by default. That move drew complaints from the ad industry, with the DAA going so far as to say that its members wouldn't be required to honor do-not-track signals that were set by default.
Last month, Microsoft retreated somewhat by stating that Windows 8 will offer users two choices at installation: "express settings" or customized. Only the express settings will include do-not-track by default.
But even that decision didn't stem criticism. Apache developer Roy Fielding was so irked that he wrote a "patch" that negates a do-not-track command from IE10. Now, publishers using Apache who want to honor do-not-track settings will have to change Apache's default.
The upshot is that do-not-track is still very much a work in progress -- and Google's decision to add the header to Chrome won't change that fact.