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Mozilla proposes ‘Do Not Track’ option for Firefox, but is it fair to everyone?

Posted by Bradley Wint on 24/01/2011

Mozilla has recently talked about including an option in their browser to allow users the option to opt-out of having their browsing data passed on to 3rd party advertisers and aggregators. The proposition states that a ‘Do Not Track’ header should be placed in a site’s source code. The browser’s feature would then scan each page for this header and then send a signal to the site, and by extension the relative ad server, telling it that a Do Not Track command exists. The ad server would then display totally non-targeted ads thus protecting the privacy of users.

The Internet has always been the few remaining resorts where users could escape into privacy, but recently 3rd party companies have been using aggregate data to better target relevant ads to those browsing sites. To counter such tactics, users have either blocked ads all together, blocked cookies and/or JavaScript ads and trackers. It’s been a tricky thing though because cookies can always return or JS scripts can be changed on the back end without people knowing immediately.

The ‘Do Not Track’ method is much more reliable because of how it works. Let’s assume a site puts the DNT header, unless they drastically change their code and forget to re-insert it, a Firefox user can always get the option to opt-out and stay out.

“When the feature is enabled and users turn it on, web sites will be told by Firefox that a user would like to opt-out of [online behavioral advertising]. 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,” said Alex Fowler, Mozilla’s Technology and Privacy Officer.

Below is a diagram of how the proposed tool may work.

Now the idea is great for those who don’t like ads or don’t like being tracked, but does this make sense in the long run. Sure we all have the right to control on the net, but does it mean we can use resources and services from sites without giving back? Facebook for instance has a policy where users who accept their terms basically sell their rights to their info put on Facebook, in exchange for a free Facebook account. I think that’s a fair deal. Also, when most data is collected, it is on an aggregate basis rather than on a personal level. Ads may be shown to you based on a category or categories you fit into.

Let’s say you’re a techie and spend most of your day browsing tech sites, the 3rd party trackers will soon sense this and deliver tech related ads that may lead to a sale. It’s a win-win for everyone. You get to read technology sites for free, while the site owners make a little bit of dinero from ad revenues via click throughs or sales leads. However, if you used this DNT tool proposed by Mozilla, you may end up seeing ads about Viagra or vagina itch creams, which are obviously irrelevant. Sure you’d get to still browse the web page but at the same time the site owner would lose out by displaying totally irrelevant adverts to users, reducing his earnings and thus cutting into his earnings and maintenance fees. Not good.

At the end of the day, this option is a difficult one since site owners have to agree to place the header on their site for the DNT addon to even work. My suggestion though is that 3rd party sites be blocked by type or brand rather than across the board. It is obvious that some 3rd parties are out for no good, but others are truly trying to deliver relevant products on a legitimate basis.

What do you all think?

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