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The Do Not Track (DNT) header is a browser standard of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). It protects users from being monitored by tracking applications. But advertising companies are finding ways to skirt the browser instruction. Internet privacy and identity protection are then dependent on advertisers’ choices, not users’ preferences. DNT gives users false notions of security, and W3C is trying to remedy this.
Early DNT Identity Protection
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) announced their support for a Do Not Track system in 2010. This came three years after some advocacy groups called for increased identity protection for consumers. A Do Not Track list would help Internet users get identity protection by blocking unwanted intrusions by online advertisers.
Microsoft supported the Do Not Track feature first with Internet Explorer 9 in 2010. Microsoft announced support for Tracking Protection Lists, or lists of domains that are used by data collection companies to track consumers. Beginning with Mozilla Firefox in 2011, DNT is now available on all browsers through a system of preventing tracking through blacklists of websites used to put tracking cookies on them.
Users can now easily opt out of tracking by web applications to ensure online privacy identity protection. They can also opt in to take full advantage of the tracking features like personalized ads. If users do not indicate a preference, they may or may not be tracked by different web applications. This is the default setting, where the DNT header is not sent until the user makes a choice.
Privacy and Identity Protection Flouted
According to a survey done in 2011, most web users would rather have DNT as a default, but advertisers refused to concede. Online advertising has become a very big business. Many companies that specialize in gathering consumer online data put Internet users at risk. These so-called data brokers do not ensure identity protection for the people whose online activities they track and follow. The data that is gathered is protected by FTC regulations, but many companies do not comply.
Many users are still unaware of the tracking activities that are widely practiced by advertising companies and data brokers. They need this DNT feature for identity protection in the face of data collection agencies’ disregard for consumer data protection. But DNT browser protection may also give users false comfort. In 2012, Microsoft made their HTTP server ignore the enabling of the DNT header by users of Internet Explorer 10. Manual commenting out of the patch that was used is the only way for IE users to re-enable the DNT feature.
Additionally, since DNT is implemented on the HTTP servers, the feature is enforced on an honor system. There are no sure systems in place, whether technological or legal, to regulate whether or not a real user choice of DNT for identity protection is in place. The Digital Advertising Alliance refused to allow default DNS, and they also do not require any companies that choose to ignore users’ DNT preferences. Neither the Better Business Bureau nor the Direct Marketing Association will sanction any companies for not honoring DNT settings.
Redefining DNT to Ensure Identity Protection
Recently, the W3C has been working on a better way for browsers to instruct advertiser websites to stop tracking Internet users. Identity protection through DNT headers alone is not enough. But the Digital Advertising Alliance (DAA) is insisting on DNT agreements that allow them to disregard DNT user preferences. DAA wants to be able to identify and profile Internet users in case they later change their minds about participating in data collection. But this requires some kind of tracking, and violates privacy and identity protection guidelines. Since user privacy and identity protection are the goals of the W3C initiative, proposals for changes to the definition of DNT were rejected. A firmer definition is needed by W3C, one which will mean that if a user enables DNT, that user will not be tracked. This is the only way for browsers to successfully aid users in securing online identity protection and browsing privacy.
Though some companies do not honor users’ DNT preference, it is still a good idea to opt out of any and all tracking via your web browser. Enabling the DNT feature can minimize the amount of data that is being drawn from your Internet activities. And since DNT is not foolproof, additional protection is warranted. One of the most effective tools for protecting your online privacy is a VPN. VPNs can shield you from tracking and monitoring through the use of an alternate IP address that hides your real location and other information. Advertisers can still track users through browser-based cookies, so purging these frequently is important. Together, the Do Not Track feature, cookie deletion and a personal VPN work to secure your privacy online.