Mozilla, Google Take Different Paths Towards Privacy Protection

Three of the four major browser companies now have proposals on the table that respond to the government’s call to create better online privacy protections. Today, Google (NSDQ: GOOG) and Mozilla each said they’re going to offer new technology that will allow consumers to opt out of targeted behavioral advertising. The companies are taking somewhat different approaches to the privacy issue, and Mozilla’s solution is potentially the more wide-ranging one-if it takes off among web publishers. Both efforts are responses to the Federal Trade Commission’s recent call for better online privacy protection, including the creation of a “Do Not Track” mechanism that would allow consumers to more easily opt out of behavioral advertising.

Mozilla’s Privacy Officer Alex Fowler explained in a blog post that its browser will send out a “header”-a kind of beacon that would announce to any website a consumer visits that he or she doesn’t want to be tracked. In the new version of Firefox, consumers will have to opt-in to this feature, and the header will be sent out to every single web page that person visits.

Google, meanwhile, is now offering a plug-in for its Chrome browser called “Keep My Opt-Outs,” which will allow users to permanently opt out from ad tracking, by remembering opt-out preferences even if users delete all their cookies. (Currently consumers’ opt-out preferences are stored via cookies, and when they delete their cookies that also deletes their preferences.)

The Google effort isn’t particularly different than a 2009 plug-in put out by the Network Advertising Initiative for Firefox that also remembers users’ preferences for opt-outs, although if Google publicizes it, its Chrome product certainly could get wider use than the NAI’s little-known plug-in.

Mozilla’s effort is more ambitious. By suggesting a “header” that would transmit a user’s preference to not be tracked with every click and page view, it hopes to create the most persistent, and simplest, form of browser-based privacy protection available. Of the browser company proposals thus far, it seems to track most closely with what the FTC is asking for. But as with all things when it comes to web privacy, it takes two to tango; Mozilla’s browser beacon will only work if web publishers and advertisers respect it, or if there’s legislation mandating that.

The new web-browsing features suggested by Mozilla and Google follow an earlier move by Microsoft (NSDQ: MSFT), which showed off some new privacy features last month that will be available in Internet Explorer 9, including the adoption of “privacy tracking lists.” That system would allow IE9 users to create lists of websites they want to block from gathering their information; such lists could be made available by privacy advocacy organizations.