Jonathan Mayer, an assistant computer science professor at Princeton University, recently told Gizmodo that the “Do Not Track” feature in your browser — the tool that’s ostensibly supposed to prevent websites from spying on the things you do on the web — is “in many respects a failed experiment.”
A failure to such a degree, he continued, that it’s probably time to declare it such, move on and yank it from web browsers. Which is a pretty big deal… coming from the guy who spent four years helping to bring it to life.
The impetus of his comment to Gizmodo was an investigation by ace privacy reporter Kashmir Hill which found that the supposed anti-tracking feature built into browsers and first imagined by consumer advocates a decade ago was supposed to be the Internet’s version of the “Do Not Call” list. It was supposed to keep sites from creeping on your web activity and lobbing targeted ads at you — and yet, just like those pieces of federal legislation with anodyne names that are often the complete opposite of what the legislation actually does, it turns out, per Gizmodo, that only a handful of sites bother to respect your request when you enable that feature.
That’s according to Hill’s piece, which notes that, according to a recent Forrester Research survey, 25 percent of Americans use “Do Not Track” to protect their privacy. Unfortunately, Hill writes, “‘Do Not Track’ is like spray-on sunscreen, a product that makes you feel safe while doing little to actually protect you.
“Yahoo and Twitter initially said they would respect it, only to later abandon it. The most popular sites on the internet, from Google and Facebook to Pornhub and xHamster, never honored it in the first place. Facebook says that while it doesn’t respect DNT, it does ‘provide multiple ways for people to control how we use their data for advertising.'”
In an example of not-so-delicious irony, Google Chrome lets users turn off tracking, Hill continues, but Google doesn’t honor the request (“a fact Google added to its support page some time in the last year“). According to a Google spokesperson, Chrome lets users “control their cookies” in addition to opting out “of personalized ads via Ad Settings and the AdChoices industry program.”
Another fun fact Hill’s piece goes on to include: While telemarketers can be fined up to $16,000 per violation if they violate the “Do Not Call” list, there’s no penalty for disregarding a “Do Not Track” request.
It’s a pretty dismal state of affairs, and the whole piece is worth a read. Here’s more from Hill:
Meanwhile, tracking is becoming even more intrusive and spilling over into the real world, with phones emitting ultrasonic sounds and Google tracking Android users’ locations despite their stated preferences. By not giving people a real choice about whether they are willing to be tracked, the internet remains locked in an arms race over privacy, with new tools and methods constantly being created to try to subvert the desires of the party on the other side of the data divide.