You’ve probably heard it 1000 times, but it bears repeating– nothing you do online is truly private. Just about everyone, from social networking sites like Facebook to advertising services like DoubleClick to individual companies with whom you do business, is interested in capturing your browsing behavior so that they can better target you as a customer.
In some cases this type of tracking can work to your advantage—for example you might be offered a coupon code the next time you visit a site where you abandoned a shopping cart. And in some cases, like when banner ads install third party tracking cookies so they can sell your profile to companies you’ve never even heard of, it is just an annoying invasion of privacy.
In the past there was little you could do about this except set restrictive privacy settings and clear cookies and browser history regularly (which might hamper your use of sites you really want to visit). However, there is now a more user-friendly solution. The new Do Not Track setting available for all major browsers (IE 9+, FireFox 5+, Chrome 17+, and Safari 5.1+) uses an http header to instruct third party sites not to track your browser activity.
Do Not Track was recently endorsed by the Federal Trade Commission, and a number of large companies have signed on to respect the setting. However many of the web’s worst privacy offenders (including the aforementioned Facebook and DoubleClick) have not yet agreed to respect it. That’s one reason the FTC is contemplating regulations that require respecting the Do Not Track code, just as it mandates that telemarketers respect the Do Not Call List.
One notable company that does respect Do Not Track is Twitter. In fact, they have created a great Do Not Track information page that provides detailed instructions for enabling the Do Not Track setting in each supported browser. Once you’ve enabled Do Not Track, you can go to donottrack.us to check that the settings are working. The top of the left column, in the “for users” section, tells you whether your browser supports Do Not Track and whether it is turned on. While you’re there, check out the other sections to learn more about the program and its adoption.
Currently Do Not Track only protects your privacy from respectable companies that agree to adhere to your preferences. But as more people use the feature, pressure will build on all companies to respect the setting and on the FTC to require it. Turn on Do Not Track today and cast your vote for a more private Internet.