Mozilla, Google Take Small Steps Toward Browser Privacy

With the federal government pushing for better Do Not Track tools for online users, browser makers are stepping up with solutions that, while not complete, are aimed at helping users avoid behavioral targeting. But while the new options from Mozilla and Google (s goog) will help users opt-out of online behavioral ads, which have stirred a lot of controversy in the last year, it’s more of a symbolic act at this point that won’t mean a huge change in privacy.

The Federal Trade Commission released a draft report on privacy regulations calling for “do not track” mechanisms to built into websites or web browsers last month. This came as online users have become more wary of online ads, specifically ones that follow their movements from site to site and target them with ads. The issue has been championed by the Wall Street Journal, which got a lot of attention pointing out that data-gathering firm Rapleaf had linked Facebook user ID information to its own database of Internet users and then sold that information to other companies.

Mozilla announced today a new “Do Not Track,” preference in Firefox that uses HTTP headers to announce to websites that a user does not want to be tracked. Firefox believes using a header, as opposed to cookies, is a better solution because it’s more clear, simple to use and is a more persistent opt-out mechanism compared to existing methods. The problem, as Mozilla acknowledges, is that it requires both the cooperation of browsers and websites to be fully effective. Mozilla, for its part, is looking at building this feature into future releases of Firefox.

Not long after Mozilla announced its tool, Google weighed in with a new Keep My Opt-Outs browser extension for Chrome. The plug-in builds off previous efforts by Google to include opt-out tools into Chrome. The Keep My Opt-Outs plug-in now works with 50 advertising companies that have signed on to an industry self-regulatory program, which allows users to opt out of ads. Google said it also plans to open source the extension code to make it available for other browser. This follows a move by Microsoft (s msft) last month to reinstate a privacy tool in Internet Explorer 9 that enabled users to avoid being tracked by certain websites and data companies.

It’s unclear if the efforts so far by Google, Mozilla and Microsoft will be enough to avoid a larger FTC Do Not Track registry. The FTC has called on the industry to regulate itself but this doesn’t appear to be comprehensive enough at this point to satisfy regulators. However, with the FTC unable to push a full Do Not Track regulation unless Congress changes the federal laws governing privacy, the efforts by ad companies and browser makers aren’t going to be terribly ambitious.

Mozilla’s approach is a preference that needs to be enabled while the Chrome plug-in needs to be installed. So the effects of both will be limited at first by user awareness about these tools. And both approaches rely on the cooperation of ad companies.  With browser makers reliant on advertising, this seems like a way to do just enough to get out ahead of the government on privacy. Just as online ad companies banded together to launch the Better Advertising Open Data Partnership to appear more transparent, browser makers are interested in playing along as well. But until these tools are built into the browsers, are easy to use and work on a variety of websites, they’re going to be more symbolic than anything else. And forget about opt-in approaches advocated by organizations like Common Sense Media, which has pushed for online users explicitly opt-in to be tracked rather than have to choose to not participate. That’s a long ways off at best.

The ad industry and browser makers know they need to do something to look like they’re being sensitive to concerns about privacy. But they know they don’t have to go too far right now because the FTC isn’t in a position yet to do much more than shame them a little. So preferences and plug-ins are all we get for now.

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