Microsoft, Google, Mozilla unite, pointlessly, on 'Do Not Track'

Calif. Congresswoman proposes rules that actually require privacy protections

In sending code for the “do not track” function it built into Internet Explorer 9 to the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), Microsoft got a little more attention that it might have as the third of the major browser makers to build DNT into their apps.  

What neither it, Google or Mozilla didn’t accomplish was to do more than stick cotton in the keyhole of the door advertisers are watching us through every minute.

All “Do Not Track” actually does is put a note in your HTTP header saying you’d prefer advertisers not track your activity.

It doesn’t require that they respect your wish; it doesn’t do anything to enforce the wish – like prevent them from adding Velcro cookies to your profile so they can stick to you like a burr.

It doesn’t require the sites you visit respect your privacy any more than they currently do.

And it doesn’t address a list of advertisers who, realizing privacy is important to potential customers, have already signed up to publicly forswear stealth tracking mechanisms that pay you back for visiting their sites by profiting from you without your knowledge.

Microsoft announced it would add Tracking Protection to IE 9 just days after the Federal Trade Commission issued a report warning that tracking is a growing privacy issue and, basically, asking advertisers to stop.

Actually, its approach was to ask consumers to ask advertisers to stop, by putting their name on the equivalent of a “do not call” list to make advertisers more efficient by allowing them to either ignore all the requests at once, or mine the list for confirmed email addresses.

The Dept. of Commerce also put out a report on tracking cookies and privacy, but took a much softer line on advertisers. Basically, it seemed to say, if you want to go online, you have to put up with being observed and having ads targeted to your behavior.

They’re both missing the boat, both on privacy and on their responsibility toward consumers.

A pair of bills that debuted in the U.S. House of Representatives Friday are designed to make clear that simply going online or allowing your private data to be created in digital form does not give advertisers and scam artists carte blanche to take advantage of you, according to California Democrat Jackie Speier, who introduced  the  Financial Information Privacy Act of 2011 and the Do Not Track Me Online Act.

“These two bills send a clear message—privacy over profit,” Speier said in the statement about the bills. “Consumers have a right to determine what if any of their information is shared with big corporations and the federal government must have the authority and tools to enforce reasonable protections.”

Unfortunately, neither the FTC nor the Dept. of Commerce is doing much of anything to define or enforce those protections.

Neither are the browser makers, when it comes to that. Putting up a tag asking a nonexistent association of unapologetic manipulators to not scam you isn’t a solution to a problem.

It’s not even a technological approach to a solution to the problem. It’s just a tiny red flag warning that vacuuming out a consumer’s head and using all that’s in it for your own commercial interests could be really dangerous.

Unfortunately, so far, it’s only harmful to the victim.

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

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