When the Federal Trade Commission announced late last year that it was investigating ways to protect consumers' privacy, it suggested a 'Do Not Track' option for every browser. This would give users the ability to opt out of online advertising - an effort akin to the 'Do Not Call' registry, from that bygone era where solicitations came via the phone rather than pop-up ads.
In response, both Mozilla and Google have announced changes to their respective browsers todays, with the addition of 'Do Not Track' features for Firefox and Chrome.
Firefox & "Do Not Track"
According to Global Privacy and Public Policy Leader at Mozilla, Alex Fowler, the new Firefox feature will allow users to set a preference that will broadcast their desire to opt out of ad-based tracking. This will be signalled via a Do Not Track HTTP header with every page view or click they make. 'We believe the header-based approach has the potential to be better for the web in the long run because it is a clearer and more universal opt-out mechanism than cookies or blacklists.'
Fowler says that this effort is an improvement on cookie-based solutions as it's more persistent and doesn't require a user loading lists of ad networks and advertisers for it to work.
The challenge, of course, with the header is that it requires both the browser and websites to recognize and implement the opt-out. 'Mozilla recognizes the chicken and egg problem,' says Fowler, 'and we are taking the step of proposing that this feature be considered for upcoming releases of Firefox.'
Chrome & Keep My Opt-Outs
For its part, Google has announced Keep My Opt-Outs, its stab at addressing the new FTC suggestions. Keep My Opt Outs is a Chrome extension that enables you to opt out permanently from ad tracking cookies.
Unlike the Firefox solution that uses the HTTP header, Chrome's answer does rely on cookies and ad networks. But the extension does address the problem that you face when and if you ever clear your browser's cookies - that you lose all your customized settings, including any site you've opted out of. The new extension for Chrome will keep that opt-out permanently.
There are also granular controls for cookies in Chrome, and Google says it's modified its browser's incognito mode to ensure that all cookies, including 'Flash cookies' can be blocked. Once you download the extension, you can check your privacy settings here.
Privacy: The New Browser Battle
Microsoft unveiled its plans for a 'Do Not Track' feature for IE9 back in December, shortly after the FTC made its announcement about online privacy. So arguably, Mozilla and Google are both playing catch up to Microsoft here.
In a statement, FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz praised the moves, 'Mozilla's initiative is to be commended. It recognizes that consumers want a choice about who is tracking their movements online, and it's a first step toward giving consumers choice about who will have access to their data. It also signals that Do Not Track options are technically feasible.'
The response to Google's announcement, however, seemed less favorable. In fact, The New York Times cites an FTC spokesperson saying, 'We're pleased that Google is engaged in the process, but Mozilla and Microsoft are clearly steps ahead.'
Image credits: Flickr user mollybob