Mozilla Rolls Out Do-Not-Track Feature in Firefox 4

Mozilla has launched a do-not-track feature in the fourth version of its popular Firefox browser, following calls from the FTC that consumers be given “comprehensive” tools to opt out of online tracking for purposes such as behavioral advertising.

The beta version of the new Firefox product, which launched today, includes a check-box preference labeled “Tell web sites I do not want to be tracked.” When selected the browser broadcasts a HTTP header to every website the user visits signaling he or she wishes to opt-out of being tracked.

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Industry bodies and browser manufacturers have been experimenting with different tools and technologies to offer consumers greater control over their online privacy in response to recent FTC scrutiny. Ad industry group the Digital Advertising Alliance is in the process of implementing a cookie-based solution, powered by firms such as Evidon and TRUSTe.

Microsoft, meanwhile, plans to introduce a feature in the next version of its Internet Explorer browser, which will allow users to implement lists of websites and third parties they do or do not wish to share their data with.

However, Mozilla feels its mechanism will provide a more robust solution. “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,” explained Mozilla’s Privacy Lead Alex Fowler in a blog post. “The advantages to the header technique are that it is less complex and simple to locate and use, it is more persistent than cookie-based solutions, and it doesn’t rely on users finding and loading lists of ad networks and advertisers to work, he added.

The limitation of the technique, however, is that it relies on compliance from website publishers and advertising companies to be effective. Those parties must build out technologies to receive and interpret the browser signal, and subsequently refrain from tracking that user.

In that respect the mechanism will only allow users to opt out of being tracked by parties that choose to enable the technology. In order to satisfy the FTC, therefore, some form of monitoring and enforcement would likely be required.

One FTC concern the mechanism could address, however, is the use of Flash cookies or other “locally stored objects” for targeting. While the industry’s self regulatory efforts deal with HTML cookies only, the header method could, in theory, prohibit sites from placing any tracking data whatsoever on users’ machines

Another advantage from Mozilla’s point of view is that the approach effectively absolves the company from any responsibility for regulating complience, since it would be technically impossible for it to so.

As Fowler notes, the header mechanism is still very much in its infancy, though he hopes rival browser manufacturers will adopt it as standard. “We are committed to working with the technical community to standardize the header across the industry. We ask that sites and advertisers join with us to recognize this new header and honor people’s privacy choices just as they are with opt-outs for [online behavioral advertising],” he wrote.

Meanwhile the FTC is currently in the process of collecting feedback from the industry on its do not track proposals, the deadline for which is February 17.

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