By Louis Simoneau

“Do Not Track” Preference Added to Firefox 4 Beta 11

By Louis Simoneau

Mozilla just rolled out beta 11 of the upcoming 4.0 version of Firefox. Mostly, this release consists of bug fixes and performance improvements, but the one new feature that’s particularly interesting is the introduction of a “Do Not Track” preference. Available in the Advanced tab of Firefox’s Preferences window, it’s a simple checkbox to inform sites you browse that you’d prefer not to be “tracked.” Here’s what the option looks like:

Online behavior tracking is an increasingly prevalent technique used by websites, social networks, and advertisers to track the clicks, searches, and browsing patterns of Internet users with the help of sessions, cookies, or other even sneakier methods. Tracking is seen by many as an invasion of privacy, as it generally occurs without the end user being made aware of it. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, for instance, has a page dedicated to explaining the practice and outlining potential dangers, and has also published a video on YouTube to spread awareness of the issue.

That said, many advertisers reap significant benefits from tracking, as it allows them to serve hyper-targeted ads to site visitors based on their browsing history.

So what does this new feature in Firefox actually do? Under the hood, when the checkbox is ticked, Firefox simply sends an additional “DNT” HTTP header with all requests. Seen through the lens of Firebug’s Net panel, here’s what that looks like:

Firefox’s new DNT header

Of course, this extra header does strictly nothing unless websites choose to honor it. It’s a little awkward to see Mozilla stepping out on a limb with this; had they announced this feature with the backing of a big player like Google or Facebook, who agreed to respect the new setting, it might have been a much bigger bombshell.

However, the release of a feature like this still has the potential to have some impact. On one hand, it can raise awareness of the issue of tracking with a greater number of Firefox users, who may then be displeased when they learn that the websites they visit are ignoring their preference to not be tracked (although it’s unclear at this point how they would learn this). But even more significantly, the US FTC (Federal Trade Commission) is considering legislation that would make this setting a legal requirement. Having an existing technical implementation of the preference setting “in the wild” might give legislators a stronger argument for the feasibility of such measures.

Finally, I think Google could have an interesting role to play in the development of this standard, as a large player that’s both an online advertiser and a browser vendor. If this feature is a selling point of Firefox 4, there will be pressure on Chrome to support it as well. But Google couldn’t really add Do Not Track support to its browser without also honoring the header on its sites and ads (at least not without appearing very hypocritical).

Whatever happens, I think Mozilla deserves to be applauded for taking a step in the right direction. It will certainly be interesting to watch this unfold over the coming months (and perhaps years).

What are your thoughts on the Do Not Track header? Does it have legs? Or is it DOA without support from advertisers?

UPDATE: The Do Not Track header option has also been added to the release candidate of Internet Explorer 9 (thanks Michael).

  • I’m a little skeptical. Unlike a browser’s “privacy mode” which blocks cookies and identifying information, this will depend on additional development work for millions of websites around the world.

    Also, what constitutes “tracking”? If you’re logging on to any system, tracking is essential. Without it, you can wave goodbye to Facebook and Twitter. Tracking can useful in other ways, such as showing recently-viewed items in Amazon or messages you’ve posted in the SitePoint forums.

    This action hopes to prevent the activities of companies using underhand tracking techniques. They’re not asking for your consent and they’re possibly breaking privacy laws: will they care?

  • Well most of the time i use private browsing feature of firefox which helps me a lot.
    About this i’m totally unaware of it. thanks for adding this piece of information to me

    • Louis Simoneau

      Private browsing isn’t really a solution:

      1) you can still be tracked, based on IP or a combination of user-agent string and other factors

      2) private browsing makes browsing more inconvenient, because you lose remembered sessions, browsing history, form field autocomplete, etc.

  • Michael

    IE9 RC also has this feature, so perhaps it will take off.

    • Louis Simoneau

      Hey, I hadn’t realized IE was implementing this as well, thanks for the heads up.

  • NinoCornelius

    It’s not so much about whether you’re being tracked but rather what will be the fluidity path of your information that has been tracked until being purged, eg your tracked data being monetized and sold to advertisers. Perhaps by using a site that chooses to monetize your tracked data (with that disclosure being visible on the site), maybe you can earn a discount or be compensated, according to what’s being offered, with virtual currencies. Lot of growth and share in that pie.

  • cadav3r

    ooh, this is interesting. i wonder if it’ll affect th developmet of FF extensions.
    such as ones that record URLs visited, like the alexa toolbar.
    at th webmaster is making a web search engine nd im developing an extension for myself and the other moderators there to help index this engine. :P

  • PhilMcIntosh

    A better idea would be a way for the browser to feed the trackers bogus information. Don’t know how feasible that is, but economically the best way to stop tracking would be to make it useless.

    • Louis Simoneau

      Unfortunately that doesn’t really work. A lot of tracking is done with cookies, and there’s really no way for the browser to know whether a given cookie is sneaky tracking or legitimately useful (like a login session or the like). A lot of tracking can also be done by IP, which the browser has no control over.

  • Simon Rönnqvist

    Google actually has this setting available already through their site. Google didn’t in fact track users across sites for advertising until they acquired DoubleClick (which did have tracking). After a rather vocal argument between Sergey Brin (who grew up in the Sovjet and therefore has something of a grudge on big brother things) they settled on a compromise to allow tracking with the possibility for the user to opt out. So Google just has to integrate this setting with this new Firefox/IE feature.

  • Ben Vail

    I really don’t understand the problem with anonymous profiles a la third party advertiser cookies, and this method. Better targeted advertising is only a good thing for consumers. As a comparison, the video you linked to has the couple being bombarded with three adverts for products they are somewhat likely to be interested in. The alternative is that they are bombarded with three adverts for products they are very unlikely to be interested in.

    If I have to be bombarded with annoying adverts – then at least they should be relevant.

  • Tim

    I don’t mind anonymous tracking (88 users want WidgetA and only 4 want WidgetB), but lately I’ve noticed a huge increase in targeted ads pulling up on my browser, and that makes me uncomfortable. I’m guessing it represents a huge investment on the part of advertisers and that they won’t give up collecting and using that data easily.
    That being said, I agree with NinoCornelius…we’re providing valuable data. It’s time for the free ride to end. :)

    • Advertising Exec

      It is absolutely not a free ride. Our industry provides free content to users – and the user pays for it via seeing ads and their data. If you don’t want ads, then you have to pay for content. What do you think pays all the authors? All the content contributors? The internet is not a black box; there are people behind all of it, people who need to make a living.

  • Tom

    A good idea – how much of a real change in web experience it will provide remains to be seen – but the cynic in me thinks rather than this being a benevolent move on Firefox’s behalf, it’s a cunning strategy to see if Google blinks first. Google may feel the need to follow suit, but then again, with its global clout, it might just choose to ignore FF’s move, remain on side with advertisers and soak up any negative press. As for Facebook launching the initiative in tandem with FF, are you kidding? There wouldn’t be a Facebook without targeted ads. And the world would be a much nicer place, too.

  • Keith

    I use “Ghostery”, an extension for Firefox which shows all the trackers on each site–you would be surprised how many. I have the option of “blocking” them but I’m wondering since I read this article if I’m just “suggesting” that I am not tracked or if the extension actually works as said. I’m going to look into this further but I’m offering it up for others to take a look at because I think it is worth checking out.

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