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The EFF Wants to Help You Avoid Pesky Online Advertisers

The digital rights group is working privacy activists to develop better standards for online advertising tracking.
August 3, 2015, 4:34pm

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, the non-profit dedicated to securing digital privacy and civil liberties, is trying to get the companies behind major web browsers to adopt a standard for their "Do Not Track" setting. The organization is allying with Disconnect, a San Francisco developer of user-friendly privacy tools, to form a coalition of internet companies that will set down harder rules for the oft-looked-over setting that seeks to give users power over data that's tracked by advertising companies on most commercial websites.

The setting as it exists right now is hidden in the preferences section of most major web browsers. As the name suggests, the setting adds a "do not track" request to a "header field," which works somewhat like a list of demands your browser sends to sites as it accesses them. Sites can specifically commit to honoring the Do Not Track setting, and as such it acts as an olive branch that sites can hold out to more privacy-minded visitors.

"What's been missing from DNT to date is a true definition of what 'tracking' means, and a plausible mechanism of enforcement. With today's announcement, we now have both of those missing pieces," Peter Eckersley, chief computer scientist at the EFF, told me in an email.

On the modern web, user tracking happens in the background in the form of cookies, which continually rack up user histories and are peddled off to various companies to tailor advertisements. It's largely practiced by any site that serves advertisements, and it's the increasingly precarious foundation on which internet companies make money.

There have been concerning stories about how companies toe the line between what's confidential and what isn't. For instance, Target correctly guessed that one of their customers was pregnant based off of purchasing history. Amazon patented software that will buy things for you before you need it. Often guised as acts of convenience, targeted advertising has been subject to all sorts of scrutiny for being more aggressive and disturbing than helpful, which is why blocking software like AdBlock and NoScript were developed to allow users to take tracking scripts and ads out of the equation.

"The new DNT Policy is designed to work in tandem with ad and tracker-blockers like Disconnect, Privacy Badger and Adblock, but it is not itself a blocking tool. Rather, it is a set of standards which—if third party sites choose to meet them—may be grounds for privacy tools to unblock those advertising and analytics domains," Eckersley told me.

And hopefully, that compromise will lend itself to a more sensible middle ground between advertisers and users who want to keep certain parts of their online activity to themselves.