I have “Do not track” add-ons for my IE 9, Firefox, and Google Chrome
browsers. Is this add-on of any real benefit?
In this excerpt from
Answercast #76, I look at some of the issues around the “Do not track”
initiative on the internet.
Do not track
There is a lot of misunderstanding and misinformation around “Do not track.” It’s even gotten quite political with Microsoft’s decision to not only include the “Do not track” feature in Internet Explorer 10 – but to turn it on by default. They actually have it enabled when you install IE 10 by default.
Here’s the problem: “Do not track” doesn’t do anything in the sense that it’s not changing what gets tracked on your PC. All “Do not track” does is it includes with every request you make of a web server, a statement that basically says, “Please, do not track me.”
That’s all it does. It makes a request of the server.
Websites don’t need to honor “Do not track.”
Now, the problem is that it’s a request and there is no compulsion for the server to honor or support that request.
In other words, a well-behaving server, probably serving ads or web pages or what not, will of course, pay attention to the “Do not track” request and do whatever “Do not track” means to them. On the other hand, the server might completely ignore it. In other words, it’s the same as not having said it at all.
So, does it add any real value? Well, I guess, maybe. It depends on which servers you talk to on a regular basis and whether or not they’re paying attention to it.
Not concerned about tracking
If you’ve read Ask Leo! for any length of time, you know that I’m not really concerned about tracking. I don’t consider tracking to be a huge issue. As an individual, you and I just aren’t that interesting. The fact that “Do not track” is this messed up really doesn’t concern me that much – because I wouldn’t turn it on myself in the first place, and I don’t.
Where things got weird is when, like I said, with Internet Explorer 10 turning it on by default… some websites have publicly stated that if they see a request coming in from Internet Explorer version 10 with the “Do not track” setting turned on, they will ignore it.
So it’s a complicated mess. Not even simplified in the least by the fact that what does it really mean to track?
What is tracking anyway?
There is no common definition; there is no common understanding of what it means to “track” somebody.
Information is always being kept. How that information relates to other information that’s also being kept is probably what most people think of as “tracking.” But even then, how the information collected over here matches the information collected over there? There may not be a correlation; there may be one.
It may be as simple as simply matching IP addresses. It may be something much more complex, including a convoluted storage of cookies and who knows what. And to be clear, setting “Do not track” has no effect on your browser storing cookies. It continues to store cookies exactly the way that has in the past, mostly because you need cookies for a lot of different things on the web to work.
All the “Do not track” setting does literally is ask servers not to track them – and then trust that they won’t.
There’s no verification. There’s no validation. There’s no enforcement. So to ultimately, to answer your question, “Is it doing anything of any real benefit?” In my opinion, no. Others might disagree.
Those sites that are cooperating with the “Do not track” initiative may in fact be doing something different that some people would consider a benefit. I’m not one of them. I’m not turning it on. The fact that it might be turned on by default in IE 10, I honestly don’t care. It’s just what it is!
The whole “Do not track” initiative, I think, is playing on a lot of people’s confusion about the entire issue to make them feel safer than they really are.
(Transcript lightly edited for readability.)