Google and Mozilla on Thursday voiced support for the White House's "privacy bill of rights" plan, which includes a call for browser makers to adopt an easy-to-use "do not track" option.
Google pledged to "adopt a broadly consistent approach" to "do not track" technology for its Chrome browser, while Mozilla said it was "firmly committed" to building a tool within Firefox that provides real choice and user control.
"Do not track" efforts are being spearheaded by the Digital Advertising Alliance (DAA), in conjunction with the Federal Trade Commission and Commerce Department. The group will work with tech companies and privacy advocates alike to find a solution that will protect peoples' privacy when they surf online.
At issue are ad networks and other companies that track Web users' online activity. Some of this activity is useful - serving up targeted ads based on habits, for example, or keeping you logged in on sites to which you surf frequently. But sometimes users are unaware that this tracking is going on, and there have been concerns about how companies use the data they collect about Internet users.
As a result, the FTC in 2010 called on browser makers to develop a "do not track" option that would let people opt-out of all tracking. Companies like Microsoft, Google, and Mozilla have come up with their own solutions to address this, but the DAA effort is intended to develop a more streamlined approach.
In January 2011, Google introduced a Chrome extension called Keep My Opt-Outs, which lets users permanently opt out of ad-tracking cookies. The DAA approach, however, takes it one step further and adds a "do not track" header directly to the browser.
"We look forward to working with our industry partners, the White House, the FTC, the DAA and all the major browsers including Google Chrome, to adopt a broadly consistent approach to these controls – rather than the situation today where every browser sets its own defaults, policies, and exceptions," Susan Wojcicki, Google's senior vice president of advertising, said in a blog post. "In particular, we are pleased that today's agreement will ensure that users are given an explicit choice, and be fully informed of the available options."
Wojcicki said the effort won't solve all Web-related privacy issues, but it's a "meaningful step forward" and Google "look[s] forward to making this happen," she wrote.
Mozilla, meanwhile, uses a "Do Not Track" HTTP header in Firefox whereby Web sites can check if they want to be tracked. It first made an appearance in Firefox 4 beta last year.
In its own blog post, Mozilla said it was "excited" by the White House announcement. "We want to continue to see Do Not Track evolve through the Internet's rich tradition of open development and collaborative innovation," wrote Alex Fowler, Mozilla's global privacy and public policy lead. "Do Not Track is too important to become a product of closed-door meetings rather than through open, multi-stakeholder efforts."
Fowler said Mozilla hopes to build a browser that achieves three goals: real choices for opting in and out of data collection; collecting the least amount of information necessary; and putting people in control of their information and online experiences.
Microsoft did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but as PCMag software analyst Michael Muchmore found out, the latest version of its Internet Explorer browser - IE9 - has the strongest "do not track" option of all the major browsers.
Tracking Protection "allows users to block tracking sites (such as DoubleClick) from following your Web surfing history and tracking you," Muchmore wrote in his review of IE9. "You can enable the feature explicitly in settings and choose a list provider of sites to block, or have it automatically create a list based on how often a third-party site phones home from different sites you visit."
Compared to Firefox, "the Mozilla answer relies on the ad networks to abide by users wishes, whereas Microsoft just blocks the trackers from communicating with your browser," Muchmore said in his review of Firefox 10.
Last year, there were reports that Apple added a "do not track" option to a test version of its Safari browser in Lion, but it has not yet made an appearance. Apple did not respond to a request for comment.