"Do Not Track" Is Failing. So How Can You Protect Yourself From Ads?

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
May 2 2014 1:48 PM

"Do Not Track" Is Failing. So How Can You Protect Yourself From Ads?

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Get a friendly badger to help you keep your browsing private online.

Screencap from Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Creepy targeted advertising can make you feel like there's no escaping constant intrusions and monitoring from marketers. For years, people have been trying to make the Internet version of a telemarketer no-call list. It's a great idea, but the problem is it hasn't been working.

Lily Hay Newman Lily Hay Newman

Lily Hay Newman is lead blogger for Future Tense.

The Do Not Track initiative started in 2009, inspired by earlier efforts like the Platform for Privacy Preferences Project (P3P) to try and alert advertisers to a user's desire not to be tracked. Do Not Track works by sending an HTTP header to websites as an alert about the user’s privacy preferences. The websites don't have to do anything differently for these users, but the goal was to organize a critical mass of companies and organizations that would agree to honor Do Not Track requests.

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Though Google reluctantly added support for Do Not Track in Chrome in 2012, companies have been slowly breaking their Do Not Track agreements because the World Wide Web Consortium has been unable to agree on consistent standards for Do Not Track. The latest to defect is Yahoo, which announced on Thursday that it would stop supporting Do Not Track.

As of today, web browser Do Not Track settings will no longer be enabled on Yahoo. As the first major tech company to implement Do Not Track, we’ve been at the heart of conversations surrounding how to develop the most user-friendly standard. However, we have yet to see a single standard emerge that is effective, easy to use and has been adopted by the broader tech industry.

Other solutions, like the Electronic Frontier Foundation's new browser extension Privacy Badger, work to block spying ads and invisible trackers. And Mozilla in particular has been active in supporting these initiatives and advocating for user privacy options. In a recent survey, Mozilla found that privacy is the most important priority for browser users worldwide.

Ultimately, standardization is the crucial issue, though. There are many valid ways to approach privacy on the Web as users move from site to site, but without agreement, sites don't know what to implement. And since user tracking for advertising makes websites money, their incentive to participate in these programs is tenuous as it is, without introducing extra work and effort for them as has been the case with Do Not Track. The best way to keep a low profile online will be to implement privacy requests that are just as inconspicuous.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.