FAQ: What Google's 'Do Not Track' move means

Google will add support for anti-tracking tech to Chrome browser before year's end

As the White House pushed a privacy bill of rights this week and readied new online privacy legislation for Congress to consider, Google decided on Thursday to get behind "Do Not Track," technology that lets users opt out of the online stalking by websites and Internet advertisers.

Some proponents of Do Not Track called yesterday V-DNT Day, in a hat tip to the likes of VE-Day in May 1945 as World War II ended in Europe. Others were more cautious, saying that the job was only half finished.

So where does Do Not Track stand now? We're here to answer that question.

What exactly did Google just agree to do? It will add support for Do Not Track to its Chrome browser.

Okay, I'll bite.... What's Do Not Track? It's technology that relies on information in the HTTP header, part of the requests and responses sent and received by a browser as it communicates with a website, to signal that the user does not want to be tracked by online advertisers and sites.

In the browsers that now support the Do Not Track header, a user tells sites he or she does not want to be tracked by setting a single option. In Mozilla's Firefox, for instance, that's done through the Options (on Windows) or Preferences (Mac) pane by checking a box marked, "Tell web sites I do not want to be tracked."

So, Chrome supporting Do Not Track is a good thing? Very much so, said Jonathan Mayer, one of the two Stanford University researchers who came up with the header standard. "This is a great step forward. For some time, Google has been the last holdout among the major browsers," he said in an interview Thursday.

What did Mayer mean by "last holdout?" What other browsers support Do Not Track? Apple's Safari, Microsoft's Internet Explorer 9 (IE9) and Mozilla's Firefox.

Firefox was the first browser to adopt Do Not Track, with Firefox 4 in March 2011, while IE9 followed suit almost immediately. Safari has supported Do Not Track since version 5.1, which debuted in OS X Lion last July.

(But Safari 5.1 hides the setting: To switch it on, select "Send Do Not Track HTTP Header" from the "Develop" menu. If you don't see the Develop menu, activate it from the Advanced section of Preferences by checking the box "Show Develop menu in menu bar." Apple will expose the setting in the Privacy section of the Preferences pane when it releases OS X Mountain Lion this summer.)

Opera Software has added Do Not Track to the alpha build of v. 12, which will work its way toward a production edition in the coming months.

I thought Chrome already used Do Not Track.... What gives? You were wrong. Rather than support Do Not Track, Chrome relied on a plug-in, dubbed "Keep My Opt-Outs," that blocks targeted ads produced by more than 80 ad networks and companies -- including Google, Microsoft and Yahoo -- that hew to self-regulation efforts.

When will Chrome add Do Not Track, and how will users turn it on? Google hasn't said exactly. A company spokeswoman said that Chrome will support the technology "by the end of the year," but declined to get more specific. She also declined to spell out the user experience, saying "We will have more to say as development proceeds."

Presumably, Chrome will add a check box to the user settings panel -- as have Firefox and Safari -- probably in the "Under the Hood" section where other privacy options are now available.

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