Web browser developers to increase privacy tools

Amid growing pressure from government regulators and consumer advocacy groups, Web browser makers are developing new ways to help consumers protect their privacy online.

Google and Firefox developer Mozilla in recent days have announced new tools in various states of development that will help users of their browsers better control and restrict the data online advertisers collect about them. Microsoft, which makes Internet Explorer, the most popular browser application, announced a similar move last month.

The moves follow rising publicity and concern about the tracking of consumers’ online activities by advertisers and corporations. The intensive data collection allows advertisers to put together detailed dossiers on consumers — sometimes containing sensitive information about their health or financial concerns — often without their knowledge.

Last month, both the Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Commerce issued reports on online privacy practices and raised the possibility of government action to ensure consumers are given greater control over their data and more information about how it’s being used.

The browser makers “all are moving forward. That’s great,” said Justin Brookman, director of consumer privacy for the Center for Democracy and Technology, an online rights group.

Brookman noted that each browser maker is approaching the issue of consumer privacy a bit differently.

“I like the idea of companies trying their own ideas to see what works and what doesn’t. I give them credit for trying different things,” he said.

But other consumer advocates were more skeptical, urging regulators to put in place enforceable privacy rules to govern advertisers’ online data collection.

“Online marketers are desperately trying to avoid legislation and regulation,” said Jeff Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy, a consumer rights group. These “announcements need to be seen as heading that off at the digital pass.”

Self-regulation sought

On the flip side, advertisers say they track consumers’ movements to serve them more relevant advertisements. Some 80 percent of online advertisements are “targeted,” according to industry figures, and help provide the revenue that allows many websites to offer their services without directly charging consumers.

Industry leaders have been supportive of giving consumers greater tools to control their information but are pushing for self-regulation rather than government intervention.

Of the tools, Mountain View-based Google’s is the first to be available to consumers. It was made available for download Monday and is a technological fix to a problem some consumers have when trying to prevent online advertisers from tracking them.

Many online advertisers allow consumers to opt out of having their movements tracked for marketing purposes. When consumers opt out, the advertiser installs a cookie — or small file — in their browser that states their preference. But consumers who have attempted to opt out of tracking can unwittingly allow advertisers to resume monitoring them by deleting their cookies. Ironically, deleting cookies is something many consumers do to protect their privacy or to reset their Web browser.

How they work

Google’s new tool — called Keep My Opt-Outs — would preserve consumers’ tracking choices even when they delete their browser’s cookies. The tool comes in the form of a browser plug-in — a mini-program that consumers can download and add to their Web browser to give it more functions.

For now, the plug-in works only with Google’s Chrome browser, which is used by a small fraction of the Internet population. But Google officials said they are working on plug-ins for other browsers as well.

The plug-in works in conjunction with an opt-out website put together by the National Advertising Initiative. Although the site includes major advertisers such as Google, Yahoo and Microsoft, it doesn’t represent the entire online advertising industry. So consumers can’t use the site and Google’s plug-in to block all online tracking.

Mozilla, meanwhile, announced Sunday that it is working on a potentially simpler and more comprehensive approach. Consumers would be able to choose a “do not track” setting in their Web browser that would be broadcast to every website they visit when they type in its address or click on a link.

Unlike Google’s approach, the Mozilla tool wouldn’t be based on a cookie and wouldn’t require consumers to go to advertiser websites to opt out of being tracked. But it would require all browser makers to build in similar settings — and advertisers to honor consumers’ requests.

Source: Mercury News

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