Do Not Track (DNT) support is well under way at Google and will be available by the end of the year on its Chrome browser. Following suit of browsers Yahoo and Microsoft, Google's latest development is in response to the White House, FTC, and DAA's cry for consumer control and transparency with the use and collection of Internet consumer data.
“We undertook to honor an agreement on DNT that the industry reached with the White House early this year. To that end, we're making this setting visible in our Chromium developer channel, so that it will be available in upcoming versions of Chrome by year's end,” says a Google spokesperson.
“Google is to be commended for joining the other major browsers in endorsing Do Not Track,” says FTC chairman Jon Leibowitz. “That's a major victory for consumers who want and deserve choice about where their personal information is going. Once we see a compromise that provides meaningful limits on collecting consumer data, the Do Not Track option will be all but complete.”
Google originally announced its intent to support a DNT system back in February; yet, Altimeter Group principal analyst Alan Webber says Google was “dragging its feet” due to the search leader's business model.
“Google's been avoiding this because that's the niche of their business model. They make their money through ads and tracking and all that data. They didn't want to have to do this,” Webber says. “I think for Microsoft and Yahoo, it's less of an impact. If their business model was highly dependent on this revenue stream, then I would say that they would probably be dragged into it, too. It's not really. Microsoft's primary revenue stream is still software, and Yahoo has a totally different ad model.”
Webber has a hunch that, as a result, Google will present users with the option of applying DNT, rather than making it a standard, hoping that consumers won't change their settings.
“Google gets the best of both worlds. It looks like they're being proactive and helping people out and saying, ‘OK, we're not going to track you if you don't want us to, but, oh by the way, you didn't opt out so we are going to track you,'” Webber says.
“The truth is, everybody is trying to get away with as much as they possibly can and everybody has been nudged to do the right thing, with the possible exception of Yahoo,” adds Karsten Weide, IDC Program VP of digital media entertainment.
Microsoft announced that Internet Explorer 10 would include DNT technology this past May, while Yahoo stated that it would include a DNT system this past March. However, the two browser's approaches are very different. Microsoft's Chief Privacy Officer Brendon Lynch announced in an August blog post that its DNT system would be implemented as a default setting, and that Microsoft consumers can opt to turn the system off on their own. On the flip side, Yahoo presents users with the option of opting in to the DNT system.
“Yahoo is really the white-hat guy in this whole scenario. They have consistently been at the forefront of giving consumers what they want in terms of privacy protection,” Weide says. “Within Microsoft, there has been a fight going on between the advertising sales and Explorer departments because the Explorer guys say ‘…we need to introduce this track option,' whereas the advertisers say…, ‘I can't track my advertising as well as before, and it makes my product less valuable to advertisers.”
Both Webber and Weide agree that the protection of consumer tracking is beneficial up to a point.
“If you take away all tracking, that's not good for anyone. It's certainly not good for publishers or networks. It's certainly not good for advertisers, of course. But it's also not good for consumers," Weide says. "If you don't have tracking, you don't have targeting–then most of the ads that you'll see are irrelevant to you, and that makes clutter."
“From a personal perspective, this is a risk management equation,” Webber adds. “What's the level of convenience I want versus what's the amount of privacy I'm willing to give up?”
Despite the various DNT approaches, none of the browsers are legally in the wrong, as there are currently no legislative restrictions. The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is currently leading a team that aims to lay out online consumer tracking regulations.
“It hasn't been clear yet exactly what it means,” says Consumer Watchdog consumer advocate John Simpson. “The advertising industry, I think, would have it mean that they're not going to target you with behavioral-based advertising. Many of us who are concerned about privacy understand that if you send a Do Not Track message, then your data should not be collected [at all].”
Although the FTC does not currently have the authority to establish mandatory regulations, according to its final privacy report, the organization did propose five guidelines: establishing a universal DNT system that covers all consumer-tracking units; providing a choice mechanism that is easy to understand, find, and use; eliminating persistent offers that cannot be avoided through software updates or cookie deletion; devising a “comprehensive, effective, and enforceable system”; and using a technology that presents consumers with the opportunity to opt out of collections of behavioral data outside of targeted advertising.
“There's always in the background the possibility that if the industry can't figure it out and get its act together, there would be some kind of legislation that would give the FTC authority to define how it would be done,” Simpson says.
However, Altimeter's Webber warns that the FTC's proposed regulations may not be enough. “Anything the FTC puts in place is not going to be relevant tomorrow,” he says. “So, you have to come up with guidelines, processes, and things that are technology agnostic.”