Back in 2011, 'do-not-track' (DNT) technology that was actively being built into Firefox, Internet Explorer and other Web browsers offered the promise of improved privacy for Internet users. Now, in 2014, DNT could be in real trouble as Yahoo, one of DNT's first implementers, has backed out of using the technology and DNT settings are no longer enabled on Yahoo.
"As the first major tech company to implement 'do not track,' we've been at the heart of conversations surrounding how to develop the most user-friendly standard," Yahoo stated in a blog post. "However, we have yet to see a single standard emerge that is effective, easy to use and has been adopted by the broader tech industry."
At its most basic level, DNT can be integrated within a Web browser that enables a user to choose whether they want to be tracked by a Website. That tracking could include cookies that are used to help identify a user and their browsing activities. On the Web server side, a given Website needs to respect the DNT setting from the browser.
As noted by Yahoo, one of the challenges with DNT is the lack of a true standard implementation across all browsers. In an October 2013 blog post, Microsoft Chief Privacy Officer Brendon Lynch outlined some of the challenges of a common standard. Lynch noted that a common DNT standard is, in fact, now being hammered out in the W3C's Tracking Protection Working Group effort.
Yahoo's decision to opt out of DNT at this point is not being well-received by privacy advocates, either.
"Yahoo is flatly saying that they are going to ignore users' requests to be opted out of tracking," Peter Eckersley, technology projects director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), told eWEEK. "That is, frankly, scandalous."
The EFF has its own technology, called Privacy Badger, to help users who do not want to be tracked. The mission of Privacy Badger is to enforce DNT, even against domains like Yahoo that ignore it, Eckersley said.
"Privacy Badger is specifically designed to create incentives for better privacy practices within the online advertising and tracking industries, and especially, honoring 'do not track,'" Eckersley said.
The early promise of DNT is one that I fully believed in. In the Web browser space, users have always had the ability to clear their browser cache or run through a proxy in an attempt to limit tracking. What DNT should have enabled is an integrated browser approach that would make it easy for a Web user to identify if they wanted to be tracked. One button in any browser, and any Website would respect the user's choice.
It should have been that easy, but it's not.
There are competing interests here, not the least of which are advertisers that rely on tracking. If millions of users opted out of tracking with DNT, there could be significant financial repercussions.
The W3C effort to build a standard for DNT isn't dead either; it's still quite active, and in fact the Last Call Working Draft was published on April 24 and is open for comment until June 18.
The irony of Yahoo's backing out of DNT now is that it is closer today to being a standard than it has ever been. The reality of tracking, though, is that informed, educated users can still use tools (Privacy Badger or otherwise) to limit tracking, DNT just makes it easier, and more uniform.
Privacy shouldn't be an add-on, though. It should be every user's right—that's the promise of DNT that hopefully will one day be realized.
Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at eWEEK and InternetNews.com. Follow him on Twitter @TechJournalist.