Browsers to defend privacy where feds won't

Do-not-track features in browsers are minimal, last-ditch protection

Finally a vendor feature-war we can believe in!

Actually, no, that's not really true.

Finally a vendor spitting match that benefits the actual customers, even at a potential cost to the developers.

Google announced today it will build a "do not track" feature into its free Chrome browser as a way to help protect the privacy of end users whose behavior online is recorded and analyzed by marketers with the help of companies organized specifically to exploit the potentially sensitive information of customers for their own benefit. Like, say, Google.

That minor irony is irrelevant compared to the chain of one-upsmanship, though. Google announced its do-not-track feature today because Mozilla announced yesterday that it would add one to Firefox.

Mozilla made its announcement partly because Microsoft announced on Dec. 7 it would add a similar feature to Internet Explorer 9.

And Microsoft announced its do-not-track less than a week after the Federal Trade Commission made a grand pronouncement acknowledging that the covert tracking of citizens' activities online might be a problem of some kind.

FTC's answer to that potential risk was a list whose unnamed keeper would add the names of end users who didn't want their activities tracked if those millions of individual members of the public would submit their names individually and on their own initiative.

Once that list was compiled, the FTC said, the privacy of citizens would be assured because marketers and advertisers -- the same ones that haven't done anything to avoid impinging on customer privacy so far -- would voluntarily and persistently do just that.

the FTC isn't trying to scare anyone, though. "The FTC isn't looking to regulate first-party tracking," and is only trying to affect third-party tracking that is used for behavioral advertising, the FTC's chief technologist said.

For this plan -- more an implausible theory than a plan -- the FTC was praised for being more active a protector than the FCC, which was working on a particularly wan and vendor-favoring set of net neutrality rules at the time.

By comparison, the FTC's statement that something should probably be done about privacy by someone was forceful clarity itself.

So seeing the browser developers leap ahead with their own solutions should be great, for a given value of "great."

If you could add a feature an eliminate a big problem, you'd have to go to the relic museum at a good university to even see a virus or trojan.

Do not track lists or features make it harder to stick a flashing "Sucker!" sign on a Web user as he or she drifts past some marketing ambush, but it doesn't keep anyone from actually being tracked. There are plenty of ways to do it without planting cookies in a browser cache.

How about built-in VPN clients connecting to free, public-access proxy servers to stop tracking and eavesdropping and even the annoying "I know your IP and what town you're in" teases at privacy product sites.

And how about alterations in consumer-protection regulations that back up that priority to protect privacy and maybe, dare we dream, some enforcement?

That would show everyone really was on the same page and wanted to do more than just make announcements. No matter how well timed they are.

Kevin Fogarty writes about enterprise IT for ITworld. Follow him on Twitter @KevinFogarty.

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