Online monitoring and “Do Not Track”

If you’ve ever noticed that online ads are targeted to your tastes and interests or that websites remember preferences from visit-to visit, the reason is online tracking methods, such as cookies.  In recent years, we, as consumers, have become increasingly aware of organization’s ability to track our movement online.  These organizations are able to track movement across their own website as well as sister websites, for example LinkedIn is able to track movement across LinkedIn,, SlideShare, etc.  Organizations are able to track movement by utilizing IP addresses, accounts, and much more to identify us and connect our online movements across sessions.  From there, advertisers and third-parties are able to purchase information about our movements to target ads.  

While online tracking is now ubiquitous in 2017, efforts to curtail an organization’s ability to monitor online movement started almost 10 years earlier. In 2007, several consumer advocacy groups advocated to the FTC for an online “Do Not Track” list for advertising.  Then, in 2009, researchers created a prototype for an add-on for Mozilla Firefox that implemented a “Do Not Track” header.  One year later, the FTC Chairman told the Senate Commerce Committee that the commission was exploring the idea of proposing an online “Do Not Track” list.  And towards the end of 2010, the FTC issued a privacy report that called for a “Do Not Track” system that would enable users to avoid the monitoring of their online actions.

As a result of the FTC’s announcement, most internet browsers provided a “Do Not Track” header similar to the one created in 2009.  These “Do Not Track” headers work by alerting websites that the user does not want their movements to be tracked through a signal, which the website can then choose to honor or not. While most of these browsers created an opt-in option for the “Do Not Track” header, Internet Explorer 10’s original default was to enable the “Do Not Track” option.  Microsoft faced blow back from advertising companies for the default setting, who thought that users should have to choose to utilise the “Do Not Track” header.  Eventually in 2015, Microsoft changed the “Do Not Track” option to be an opt-in and no longer a default option.

Despite these browsers implementing “Do Not Track” solutions for users, there has been no legally agreed upon standard for what organizations should do when they receive the signal. As a result, the majority of online organizations do not honor the “Do Not Track” signal.  This was further enabled in 2015, when the FCC dismissed a petition that would have required some of the larger online companies (e.g., Facebook, Google, Netflix) to honor the “Do Not Track” signals from consumers’ browsers.  In the response, the FCC stated that “the Commission has been unequivocal in declaring that it has no intent to regulate edge providers.”  The FCC’s response to this petition has enabled organizations to ignore “Do Not Track” signals as the response indicated that the FCC has no intention of enforcing the signal.  Due to the lack of enforcement, today, the “Do Not Track” signal amounts to almost nothing for the majority of the web.  However, there are a few organizations that have decided to implement the “Do Not Track” signal, including Pinterest and Reddit

In general, while there is a “Do Not Track” option available for internet browsers, it does not do much at all.  Instead, for users to protect their online privacy and prevent tracking, they must consider other options such as setting your browser to reject third-party cookies, leveraging browser extensions to limit tracking, etc.

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