Browsers' anti-tracking systems vary
When I wrote about the new versions of the three leading Web browsers, I briefly discussed how each of them now has a feature that blocks websites and advertisers from tracking users' movements online.
The reaction from readers was, "Tell us more."
Unfortunately, there's no easy way to handle that request. Each of the three major browser makers has put in place its own distinct anti-tracking system. None of them is turned on by default; in fact, they can be quite complex to activate.
The tracking tools are used by advertisers and marketing research companies to get a better understanding of their users, who are otherwise generally anonymous, and to target advertisements to individual consumers based on their online activities. Online marketers argue that tracking helps them deliver ads that are relevant and helps support many of the services, such as email or news, that are offered for free to Web surfers. Privacy advocates have persuasively countered that online tracking is far more extensive than most consumers realize or have knowingly consented to.
Firefox browser maker Mozilla is focusing its anti-tracking efforts on promoting a new "header" field. Headers are the information that browsers transmit to sites when users request Web pages. They tell Web servers things such as what page is being requested and what browser the visitor is using.
Mozilla's idea is to include in that header information a field that would inform websites of users' tracking preferences. The system would work like a kind of beacon, alerting websites and advertisers that users don't want to be tracked.
Mozilla's Do Not Track system has the potential to be a powerful tool for Web surfers.
Unfortunately, the system has a big problem: Few websites are presently set up to recognize or respond to Mozilla's Do Not Track header. That means that for now, even if Firefox users turn on the Do Not Track feature, they almost certainly will continue to have their movements monitored by marketers. And because tracking is typically invisible to end users, they'd have little way of knowing that.
Firefox users can supplement this system by installing an add-on program called AdBlock Plus and then subscribing to a list of known advertisers and networks. As it sounds, this program blocks most Web ads from appearing when users download pages, but it has the side benefit of preventing tracking.
Unfortunately, AdBlock Plus is a blunt tool. It blocks most ads -- including ones you may want to see -- but by default, it doesn't block all tracking, because it targets advertisers, not other firms that track users.
Microsoft's anti-tracking solution is very similar to what's available for Firefox, except that it doesn't require users to download a separate program. When users turn on "tracking protection" in Internet Explorer, the browser will send out the same Do Not Track header that Mozilla is promoting.
Additionally, Internet Explorer allows users to subscribe to lists of advertisers and Web companies whose tracking they want to block. They can even subscribe to some of the same lists used by AdBlock Plus.
But Microsoft added on an extra layer of protection to Internet Explorer. The browser allows users to automatically create anti-tracking lists. Internet Explorer can monitor who is providing content such as ads or videos on the Web pages users visit. The browser assumes that if a third party is delivering content to more than a few websites, that third party is probably tracking Web users. Once a user sees content from that provider on a certain number of sites, Internet Explorer will start blocking that provider.
Unfortunately, like AdBlock Plus, these automatic lists are blunt tools that may end up blocking content that users actually want to see.
Google is taking a different tack with Chrome. Many Web advertisers already allow consumers to opt out of being tracked and receiving "targeted" advertisements. To do so, consumers have to visit particular websites that have been set up by the advertisers or industry groups. When consumers click on ad networks that they want to opt out of, the sites save cookies -- or small files -- to the users' browsers.
Unfortunately, those cookies can be easily deleted.
Google's solution is a small, optional add-on program for Chrome called "Keep My Opt-Outs." The program prevents users from accidentally deleting their anti-tracking preferences when they delete their cookies.
"Keep My Opt-Outs" is more effective than the Do Not Track header, because the anti-tracking preferences it protects are already supported by many of the major advertising networks.
But "Keep My Opt-Outs" isn't built into Chrome, and Google doesn't advertise it within the browser, so consumers have to know that it's available and take the extra step to install it. And if they want to opt out of tracking, they have to take another step and find the sites that allow them to set their preferences. In other words, Google's anti-tracking system isn't one-click easy.
The good news is that if you're concerned about having your online movements monitored, you can do something about it. But blocking such tracking is not as easy or as comprehensive as it ought to be.
Turning off tracking
The new versions of the three Web browsers allow users to block advertisers and websites from tracking their movements online. Here's how to turn on their anti-tracking features.
Mozilla Firefox 4.0
1. Click on the "Firefox" button (Tools menu in Windows XP if Menu Bar is open) in the upper-left corner of the browser window.
2. Click on "options" (or "preferences" on a Mac). This will bring up the options dialogue box.
3. Click on the "advanced" button.
4. In the "Browsing" area on the "advanced" section, click on the box next to "Tell Web sites I do not want to be tracked."
Note : This turns on a "Do Not Track" header, which few websites currently recognize. For added protection against tracking, users can install AdBlock Plus, an add-on program that blocks ads and prevents tracking by many Web operators. To do so:
1. Click on the Firefox button (or "Tools" in the menu bar on a Mac).
2. Click on "Add-ons."
3. Click on the "Get Add-ons" tab.
4. Click in the search box on that Web page, type "adblock plus" and hit enter
5. Click on the "install" button next to AdBlock Plus. You'll then be prompted to restart your browser.
6. After that, you should return to the Add-ons Web page. Click on the "Extensions" tab. This should give you a list of add-ons you've installed.
7. Find the AdBlock Plus extension and click the "Options" (or "Preferences" on a Mac) button underneath it. It should show that you are subscribed to a subscription list. By default, this list is likely to be EasyList or Fanboy's List.
8. Open up a new tab. Go to https://easylist.adblockplus.org/en/. This will take you to EasyList, a site that puts together lists of Web advertisers and trackers. (If you have Fanboy's list, go to http://www.fanboy.co.nz/adblock/.)
9. Under "EasyPrivacy," click on the link to "Add EasyPrivacy to AdBlock Plus." This will bring up the "Add AdBlock Plus filter subscription" dialogue box. (On the Fanboy page, you'll want to click on the link to "Add Fanboy Tracking list to Firefox"; you may be prompted to add the Fanboy AdBlock list first.) This will bring up the "Add subscription" dialogue box.
10. Click on "Add subscription."
Microsoft Internet Explorer 9.0
1. Click on the settings button in the upper-right corner of the browser window (it looks like a gear).
2. Click on or mouse over "Safety." This will bring up a submenu.
3. Click on "Tracking Protection." This will bring up the "Manage Add-ons" dialogue box.
4. Make sure "Tracking Protection" is selected under the list of "Add-on Types." Then click on "Your Personalized List."
5. Click the "Enable" button in the lower-right hand corner of the dialogue box.
Note : This does something similar to turning on the "Do Not Track" feature in Firefox, although Internet Explorer will also start automatically creating a list of blocked operators by monitoring the third-party content served up by the sites you visit. Rather than waiting to generate a list, users can simply subscribe to a pre-existing one. To subscribe to one such list:
1. Open up a new browser window.
2. Go to https://easylist.adblockplus.org/en/
3. Scroll down to the box that says "EasyPrivacy Tracking Protection List"
4. Click on the link to "Add EasyPrivacy Tracking Protection list to Internet Explorer 9." This will bring up the "Tracking Protection" dialogue box.
5. Click on "Add List."
Google Chrome 10
1. Open up a new browser window.
2. Go to https://chrome.google.com/webstore . This will take you to the Chrome Web store.
3. In the "Search the store" box, enter "keep my opt outs"
4. Click on the icon for Google's Keep My Opt Outs extension. This will take you to the Keep My Opt Outs page in the Chrome store.
5. Click the "Install" button on the right side of the page. Wait until Chrome confirms that it has installed the extension.
6. In the "Description" box on that page, click on the link to http://www.aboutads.info/choices/.
7. The page that loads will tell you what ad networks you may already have opted out of.
8. After the site finishes analyzing your browser settings, click on the "All Participating Companies" tab. From here you can select individual networks and tracking companies you can opt out of. Or you can click on "Select All Shown" to choose all of them at once.
9. Click on the "Submit your choices" button.
Note : AdBlock Plus is also available for Chrome and represents an alternative to the Keep My Opt Outs method. Chrome users can search for and install AdBlock Plus from the Chrome Web store.
Source: San Jose Mercury News research