Report: Advertisers Undermining Do Not Track Plans

By Stewart Mitchell, PC Pro


The internet advertising industry is undermining moves to improve online privacy in a bid to protect a market "optimised to maximise collection of data", according to a report into Do Not Track by the Berkeley Center for Law and Technology.

According to the report, advertising companies are simultaneously trying to water down proposed laws on Do Not Track, while working on methods to circumvent the limited protections already in place in web browsers such as Internet Explorer.

"The advertising industry has argued for systemically weakening what 'Do Not Track' means, and has retreated from earlier, stronger promises to limit tracking," it found.

The researchers also said the advertising industry was backtracking on earlier promises to respect user requests not to be tracked. "Industry groups presently are lobbying for a different interpretation [of Do Not Track] that would allow pervasive tracking and use of information derived from online experiences, even if the consumer opts out," the report said.

For example, 60% of research respondents said that Do Not Track should mean just that, but the industry wants to be able to collect such data for other purposes, such as market research.

"Other tracking vectors are presently difficult for consumers to avoid, because they enable server-side tracking, because they are not well known by consumers, or because privacy controls for these tools are not popularly available," the report said. "These include device fingerprinting, HTML5 local storage, Document Object Model objects, and Silverlight cookies."

Accept or miss out

The report also suggested that – in a similar way to how cookie laws in Europe have been watered down by sites simply announcing they drop cookies rather than get permission – companies might make accepting tracking a requirement of using their sites.

The report claims online companies could make it impossible to use their sites unless users agree to turn off "Do Not Track" requests in their browsers even if Do Not Track rules do offer any protection.

"It is foreseeable that regardless of the form Do Not Track takes, websites will simply require consumers to disable it in order to access content," the report said.

Do consumers care?

However, the report also highlights another disparity - that between privacy concerns of consumer campaigners and consumers themselves.

Do Not Track has been covered widely in the US and elsewhere, with the The Wall Street Journal in particular running regular stories on the subject and campaigning for more controls.

However, the report showed that the message was not getting through to end users, with only 13% of survey respondents having even heard of Do Not Track.