Google jumps into 'Do Not Track' debate with Chrome add-on

Expert applauds Mozilla, Google for following Microsoft in adding browser privacy tools

A day after Mozilla said it was exploring a "Do Not Track" feature for Firefox, Google today announced a Chrome add-on that lets users opt out of tracking cookies that monitor their movement and behavior online.

One privacy expert called Google's new extension a "marginal improvement," but applauded the browser maker for jumping into the privacy discussion.

Chrome's "Keep My Opt-Outs" add-on leverages the self-regulation efforts by the online advertising industry to let users permanently opt out of ad tracking from the companies that participate in various programs, including the Network Advertising Initiative, said Google in a blog post Monday morning.

Google made it clear that it sees its strategy as walking the line between privacy and keeping the Web -- which largely relies on advertising -- afloat.

"This new feature gives you significant control without compromising the revenue that fuels the Web content that we all consume every day," said Sean Harvey and Rajas Moonka, a pair of business product managers.

Google also plans to build similar add-ons for other browsers, and has released the code for the Chrome extension as open-source so developers can spot bugs or make modifications.

The free Keep My Opt-Outs extension can be downloaded today from the Chrome Web Store.

On Sunday, Mozilla said it was working on a different approach, one that relies on the Do Not Track HTTP header, for Firefox, but did not spell out a timetable to integrate the new technology with the browser.

Both Google and Mozilla have followed Microsoft, which last month said it would add what it called "Tracking Protection" to Internet Explorer 9 (IE9) with the release candidate, or RC, build of its next-generation browser. According to reports, Microsoft will ship IE9 RC this Friday.

Although the three browser makers are each exploring different strategies, that's a good thing, said Justin Brookman, the director of consumer privacy at the Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT), a digital rights advocacy group based in Washington, D.C.

"It's useful to explore different ways to address privacy on the Internet," said Brookman. "I see this as [akin to] beta testing by the browser makers, whether it's the Do No Block HTTP header or Microsoft's blocklist, because they need to get data around how things really work."

While Brookman was less impressed with Google's idea -- he called it a "marginal improvement" and "a step in the right direction" -- he gave the search company credit for doing something. "Like the others, they're exploring options," Brookman said.

It's too early to say which strategy will dominate, or even if one does, Brookman added, but he expects to see continued movement on privacy during 2011.

"It looks like they're iterating pretty quickly," Brookman said, referring to the bandwagon that Mozilla and Google have joined in the last two days. "We'll see this move very quickly."

Brookman saved his biggest praise for Mozilla, and its Do Not Track HTTP header concept.

"It's very easy to do on the part of browser makers," he said, echoing Mozilla's belief that the technology -- which doesn't rely on a list, as does Microsoft's approach, or on cookies, as does Google's -- was the simplest solution.

Mozilla's assumption, of course, is that Web sites and advertisers will buy into the idea.

"That's the chicken and the egg problem, that sites and advertisers will build support [for the header]," said Brookman. "But by putting a bug fix out there means that there will be more discussion of the approach. The three or four months it will probably take Mozilla [to add the feature to Firefox] means they can use the time to build support."

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has called on browser makers to add additional privacy features to their software so users can decide how much information to share with sites and advertisers.

Ironically, Brookman credited concerns about Facebook's information-sharing for jump-starting the discussion about Do Not Track and browsers.

"A lot of it comes from Facebook," Brookman argued. People can relate to tales of the popular social networking service sharing their personal data, he said, when they may not understand the intricacies of personalized Web ads, and how sites and advertisers monitor consumers' movements on the Web.

"Consumers can internalize what goes on in Facebook, and it's driven a far amount of the calls for more privacy," said Brookman. "But all the talk, whether it's from the FTC or in the series of stories last year by the Wall Street Journal, has had an aggregate effect," he added in explaining why the pace has picked up.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

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