All major web browsers offer a Do Not Track feature that lets websites know that you don’t want to be tracked. Seems like a good idea, but does it protect your privacy?
Let’s take a look at the evidence provided for us to decide for ourselves.
What is “Do Not Track”
“Do Not Track is a technology and policy proposal that allows users to opt out of tracking by websites they do not visit, including analytics services, ad networks and social platforms.”
When you check the Do Not Track box in your browser settings, your browser adds HTTP headers to all your web traffic. This lets websites know that you don’t want them to track you. You don’t want to track cookies from analytics or advertising networks, and you don’t want information about your browsing sent to social networks.
Ideally, this means that you will not receive browser cookies that allow retargeting of ads or mass collection of data about your browsing habits. Unfortunately, as you might have guessed, these HTTP headers can theoretically be ignored by websites. There’s nothing to stop organizations from tracking you, even after you ask nicely.
Having said that, let’s explore whether organizations are allowed to ignore your request not to track you.
Is “Do Not Track” Legally Forced
In a perfect world, any website that receives web traffic with a Do Not Track header would do just that: not track users. The idea of making it legally binding has been submitted to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) several times.
Deciding not to become officially involved in user privacy, the FTC instead commissioned the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) to work on the details of the Do Not Track technology. Unfortunately, the W3C includes Adobe, Facebook, Google, eBay, Netflix, PayPal, Kaiser Permanente, Twitter, Yahoo!, and several hundred other organizations, many of whom are interested in collecting your data.
As a result, the case of making “Do Not Track” a legally binding requirement failed. Businesses can freely override Do Not Track settings without fear of legal repercussions. Thus, businesses are free to choose whether they want to value it or not.
Does “Do Not Track” Work
Currently, only a small number of websites respect Do Not Track. The rest will ignore the request, and some will even show you privacy-related ads assuming it’s relevant to your interests.
As a result, the tech world’s trust in Do Not Track is slowly waning. When Internet Explorer 10 was released, Microsoft enabled Do Not Track in the browser by default. They state that users should make a conscious decision to share information with advertisers, and not the other way around.
The Digital Advertising Alliance made a fuss. As a result, Microsoft gave in to the demands; on Windows 10, users must now enable the feature themselves. Now their privacy statement says:
Because there is not yet a common understanding of how to interpret the signal [Jangan Lacak], Microsoft services are not currently responding to browser signals [Jangan Lacak].”
Online service providers usually use this as an excuse to not respect the settings. There are no standards or laws that back up Do Not Track, and as such, there is no incentive for anyone to use it.
While several companies including Twitter, Medium, Reddit, and Pinterest have committed to honoring Do Not Track users’ requests, most advertisers ignore them. They cite the lack of standards being implemented, while also making no effort to actually create them.
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As a result, the “Do Not Track” option in your browser is of little help. While some companies respect it, it has no legally binding requirements to back it up. Companies looking to track you can and will ignore your tags and harvest your information.
How to Protect Your Online Browser Privacy
Do Not Track is a great idea, but the lack of strong rules and the broader industry’s decision to ignore it is its downfall. However, there are other options you can use to protect your privacy.
Set Your Browser to Reject Third Party Cookies
First-party cookies come from the websites you visit, and they can be useful. However, third party cookies come from advertisers and social networks and track you on the internet.
Opt Out of Tracking Services as Much As You Can
There are plenty of them, and many don’t offer an opt-out solution, but you can opt out of the big ones, like Facebook and Google. You can also go to NetworkAdvertising.org/choices to opt-out of ad networks, but their effectiveness is questionable.
Use Browser Extensions to Restrict Tracking
Several browser extensions are available that protect you from third-party tracking. Disconnect.me is probably your best bet, though you should be able to find a few others.
Use a Privacy-Focused Browser
Some browsers, such as Epic and Dragon, are committed to your privacy. Others, like Tor, aim to maximize privacy to the fullest.
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