Browser-based privacy controls come with caveats

Efforts by browser vendors to limit tracking illustrate the need for other solutions.

Privacy.pngMonday’s release of the Internet Explorer 9 upgrade didn’t just feature faster speeds and a shiny new interface — it included an option for users to request that sites not track them as they surf around the web.

The Firefox 4 upgrade, expected March 22, will include this feature as well, according to a Wired post by Ryan Singel. In the Wired story, Singel also highlights third-party no tracking software developed by Abine, which combines the IE9 and Firefox privacy capabilities in a Firefox add-on.

Abine co-founder Andrew Sudbury commented for Singel’s post:

We strongly believe people will go out of their way to support sites and businesses that treat them well but will also go out of their way to avoid businesses that annoy them or breach their trust.

Setting aside the disruption no-tracking tools could bring to online advertising and marketing models — that’s an issue for another post — there are two problems with these browser-based solutions:

  1. There’s an incorrect assumption that people know how to adjust their browser settings. Put another way: they don’t satisfy the “mom test.” My own mother doesn’t realize sites are tracking her, nor does she know how to change browser defaults or set up whitelists. I’m guessing at least some of the folks still paying $25 per month for AOL dial-up access fall into the same group.
  2. If consumers use multiple browsers, move from computer to computer, or grab their mobile phones, “no tracking” doesn’t necessarily follow them. Abine appears to be addressing this to some extent — see the release notes for version 0.550 — and syncing across browsers is becoming common. But what if you use browsers from different vendors? And what about mobile browsing?

An additional caveat, unrelated to browsers, is noted in the Wired story: these systems require websites to honor user requests to not be tracked.

To achieve any real privacy utility, it would seem that Do Not Track needs to come from a level above the browser — that could mean a syncing tool across browsers and devices, cloud-based browsing, or it could involve industry regulations.

Photo: Privacy by Alan Cleaver, on Flickr

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