"Do Not Track" Button Really Doesn't Keep Companies From Tracking You

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Remember how awesome it was last week when Google finally gave internet privacy a +1 and agreed to implement a "Do Not Track" button on Chrome? Remember how even awesomer it was when other companies like Yahoo! and AOL agreed to respect people's privacy and join the fellowship of internet privacy proponents? Since then, we've enjoyed a veritable Camelot of internet privacy and nobody ever has to worry about anything ever again thanks to that "Do Not Track" button.

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That'd be nice if things worked out that way, wouldn't it? Unfortunately, this is reality, this is still 2012, and we the internet-ed people aren't really all that more non-trackable than we were before the conception of a "Do Not Track" button. The New York Times point out that while the browser function will allow users to notify data-collecting companies that they do not want to be tracked (because previous indicators of such apparently fell upon deaf ears), the privacy measure still leaves people vulnerable to be tracked by first-party sites.

Many publishers and search engines, like Google, Amazon or The New York Times, are considered “first-party sites,” which means that the consumer goes to these Web pages directly. First-party sites can still collect data on visitors and serve them ads based on what is collected.

But third-party sites, which are networks that collect and use data to serve advertising tailored to the user, like DoubleClick (which is owned by Google); Advertising.com, owned by AOL; and a multitude of smaller ad networks would be restricted in the data they can collect on users if they select a Do Not Track option. Such companies would be limited to using data for purposes like market research and analytics but could not create detailed profiles on users or show them ads based on online behavior.

Understandably, privacy advocates aren't really letting this issue go quietly into the night and charge that the "Do Not Track" initiative is less about enabling people with more control over their search information and more about companies making "an attempt to thwart a more restrictive stance on data collection."

If we've learned anything from companies like Google and Facebook, it's that they regard these sorts of privacy provisions as obstacles and not deterrents; a minor setback in their irresistible march to what they desire. A law limiting the collection of user data is a problem-solving game for them and initiations like a "Do Not Track" button is just a another problem to work around in order to achieve their goal.

And speaking of Facebook, it's still up in the air whether or not their ubiquitous "Like" button, which siphons information from users back to Facebook anytime a person clicks it, would designate them as a first-party or third-party site. Follow the money on that dilemma and anybody can reliable predict which category Facebook thinks they should belong to. Even then, as mentioned above, putting a limit on how much (or little) Facebook can track people through the use of the "Like" button just means that they'll find another, more cunning way to do it. Telling these companies not to track users online is like telling the sun not to hang so high in the sky.

Or, as Thomas Roessler, a domain leader with the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), said, "I do think you will see a lot of contention going forward about what 'Do Not Track' means."

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