Stop Web Ads From Tracking Users? Dream On

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The Federal Trade Commission has suggested the need for a new do-not-track list that would allow users to opt out of being tracked online.

The proposal lends weight to the Do Not Track project created by a group of Stanford researchers earlier this month. Although some Web browsers like Internet Explorer have features to help users remain invisible as they travel from site to site, technology is an imperfect solution.

Jonathan Mayer, a Fellow at the Stanford centre for Internet and Society, explains that blocking software requires constant vigilance on the part of Web users and the folks who maintain blacklists of banned sites, and that it blocks otherwise useful third-party tools. Instead, Do Not Track proposes that browser makers add features to let users signal to Web sites that they don’t want to be tracked. Web sites would then honour the request. The technology to do so is quite simple, and Mozilla is already considering it for Firefox.

But the business barriers will be almost impossible to overcome. Web sites who depend on user tracking for advertising dollars aren’t going to opt out voluntarily. That means a law is required, like the one that created the Do Not Call registry. Even the FTC admitted that it’s powerless to implement its recommendation without legislation from Congress. And you can bet that big Internet advertising companies like Google, Facebook, and Microsoft will lobby hard against any such rules.

Technical solutions like InPrivate Filtering in IE and TrackerBlock aren’t perfect, but they’re available today. If you’re concerned about the information being gathered as you surf the Web, use these tools now and hope that Congress eventually passes stricter privacy laws.

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