“Previously, Gravity provided users with the ability to use the browser 'Do Not Track' signal to opt out of certain personalization,” Gravity says on its site. “AOL has consolidated and simplified many of the preferences and opt-outs we offer, and as a result, 'Do Not Track' browser signals will no longer be recognized."
Gravity says that users can eschew personalization by visiting an opt-out page, including the ones operated by the Digital Advertising Alliance and Network Advertising Initiative. But privacy advocates say that opting out through links on those sites poses challenges, because those links are tied to cookies -- which are seen as unstable, given that consumers who are especially privacy conscious often delete their cookies.
AOL's other brands, including publishers like TechCrunch and Huffington Post, also will ignore the browser-based signals. But that decision isn't inconsistent with the current view of do-not-track, as outlined by the World Wide Web Consortium.
The do-not-track commands aren't aimed at preventing publishers from collecting data about their own visitors, says the Center for Democracy and Technology's Justin Brookman, who chairs the W3C's effort to forge a consensus about how to respond to the signals. In fact, publishers are allowed to gather information from users who have activated do-not-track, according to the W3C's most recent formulation of the concept.
All of the major browser companies now offer do-not-track headers, which tell publishers and ad networks that users don't want to be tracked. But the header doesn't actually prevent tracking. Instead, ad networks and publishers are free to ignore the signals.
Earlier this year, the Web companies, computer scientists and privacy advocates in the W3C's tracking protection working group tentatively decided that a “do not track” request will communicate that users don't want data about themselves collected by ad networks and other third parties.
But the organization also says that ad networks should be able to collect some type of information -- such as data used for ad-frequency capping -- even when people activate do-not-track. The group is still debating exactly what type of data can still be collected in that situation.
AOL suggests in its newest policy that it might change course after the industry reaches a consensus about do-not-track. “If and when a standard for responding is established, we may revisit its policy on responding to these signals,” the company says.
For now, very few Web companies appear to honor do-not-track signals -- and even some of the companies that previously respected the signals have retreated. In May, Yahoo said it would no longer honor the do-not-track requests that users send through their browsers.