The myth of Do Not Track -- and the tragedy of Internet privacy

As yet another Do Not Track deadline slips away, so do our chances of limiting data collection and mining by advertisers

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Mayer is also one of the main forces behind Mozilla deciding to make Do Not Track a default setting in an upcoming version of the Firefox browser -- in large part because he lost any faith that the working group would come up with a fair DNT solution. He's not the only one calling for that group to fish or cut bait.

To be fair, the lack of resolution isn't the result of laziness. I've been lurking on the email lists for the W3CTPG for the past four months, and I have to say I'm impressed with the effort and dedication of all involved. But the issues are more complicated than you might expect, and when you have dozens of geeks who can't agree on the meaning of basic terms (such as "tracking" and "browser"), it's a recipe for stalemate.

A lopsided battle

And -- let's be honest here -- one side has no real incentive to bargain. The only reason the advertising/tracking industry is participating in this process is to avoid the threat of legislation mandating Do Not Track as a default setting. But with the odds of our Congressional clown college passing any kind of legislation next to nil, there's not a lot of motivation for the Advotati to move away from the notion that tracking should be the default setting for everyone and everything.

As the debate over Do Not Track was raging, the ad industry created a trade group called the Digital Advertising Alliance, which in turn created a "self regulatory" system designed to head DNT off at the pass. It's called the Ad Choices program, and it's really designed to look like it's giving control over ad tracking to consumers, without actually giving control over ad tracking to consumers.

You've probably seen it in action -- those tiny blue triangles that appear at the corners of some behavioral ads, which give you more information about the advertisers when you click on them. Allegedly, you can opt out of all behavioral ads with a single click inside the Ad Choices window; in reality, opting out will take some 300 to 500 clicks for every browser on every device you use -- and that doesn't cover a lot of companies that deposit tracking cookies on your computer.

That is the current state of the Internet; barring a mass adoption of tracking blockers like Abine's DoNotTrackMe or Disconnect browser plug-ins, that's how it will remain. The longer this fight over DNT goes on, the more information the advertisers and their data mining buddies collect. The real issue isn't even the "more relevant" ads that anonymous behaviorial tracking allows; it's how that data can be tied back to your actual identity, and what else it could be used for -- like loan approvals or determining insurance rates.

The working group might eventually plod its way toward some kind of DNT standard, but it will probably be too little and too late. With every day that passes, it seems less likely that this fairy tale will have a happy ending.

Is there a Goldilocks solution for Web tracking? Or are we stuck with the big bad wolf? Submit the moral of this story below or email me:

This article, "The myth of Do Not Track -- and the tragedy of Internet privacy," was originally published at Follow the crazy twists and turns of the tech industry with Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Field blog, follow Cringely on Twitter, and subscribe to Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter.

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