Browser war: Browser Privacy Feature Face Off

The newest major web browsers all seem to carry advanced Privacy Features designed to reduce a user’s Internet footprint by allowing them to tune down what websites can track.

Internet Explorer 9 provides Tracking Protection, while Mozilla Firefox 4 offers a Do Not Track feature and Google Chrome 10 allows users to add an Opt-Out extension to the browser.

While all three are similarly promoted as privacy features, they are massively different in how they work and how they impact the user experience.

Internet Explorer 9 – Tracking Protection

Internet Explorer 9 - Tracking Protection

This privacy feature in IE9 requires the user to specifically opt out from a list (or lists) of ad networks. The browser will then watch for clickstream tracking and targeted ads coming from the sites/servers/networks in the opt-out list and simply block them. However, where this list(s) will come from is yet to be finalized.

The main concept is that users will have to create their own lists of ad networks they want blocked, or choose from lists compiled by privacy groups. And it will be left up to the users to continually update their IE9 browsers with the latest, most comprehensive lists.

Jonathan Mayer, a Stanford doctorate and law student who is also a research fellow at Stanford’s Center for Internet and Society, says that the IE9’s blocking lists “should at minimum cover the NAI companies and possibly more” – USA Today – Technology Live

Firefox 4 – Do Not Track Feature

Firefox 4 - Do Not Track Feature

When enabled by the user, Firefox’s Do Not Track feature works by inserting a Do Not Track HTTP Header into the request sent to every website you click to requesting no clickstream tracking. This header tells the receiving website(s) that the user would like to opt out of the Online Behavioral Advertising (OBA).

“The idea is to standardize a way of asking people to not track you, and then send that to everyone,” says Mayer. “You’re relying on the honor system for people not to track you.” The Firefox approach is “essentially a universal form of an opt-out cookie that goes along with every request to every ad network. Not just those on the NAI list or other lists.”

As opposed to actively managing opt-out lists, the user can simply turn the feature on to start sending the opt-out request to every server by default.

While this feature is the closest to being ideal in terms of comprehensiveness and ease-of-use, it may still take a few more Federal Trade Commission (FTC) rulings before the concept can work as intended, as the onus is now on the receiving servers to honour the opt-out request while there is still no clear FTC requirements as yet that defines which servers can and cannot track what.

Google Chrome 10 – Opt-Out Browser Extension

Google Chrome 10 - Opt-out Browser Extension

Google Chrome requires the user to install the Opt-Out browser extension as the privacy feature. This browser extension allows users to ask to opt out of being tracked by the Network Advertising Initiative (NAI) members. The participating members then embed a cookie in the user’s browser noting that request.

Upon such request, some NAI members stop tracking the user’s clickstreams while some other members merely stop sending targeted ads to the user and carry on with clickstream tracking. Should the user ever delete his or her cookies — which is wise to do periodically, for security reasons — the NAI’s opt-out cookies get wiped out, too. The primary added functionality of Keep My Opt-Outs is designed to “prevent accidentally clearing those cookies,” says Mayer.

In Summary

To me, after analysing these features in more detail, what has lately generated much hype in the market seems to be a great concept that is currently lacking in execution due to no follow-up regulation to enforce the opt-out requests.  However, in the future this may be resolved to allow the features to function as intended.

What about Web Analytics?

I can see some concerns out there on how these Privacy Features (especially “Do Not Track”) will impact the web analytics tracking.

My estimation is that the above is a misconception and that there should not be any real impact at all to Web Analytics. Here is why:

  1. Rate of usage: Early observations seem to indicate heavy user involvement in setting those features up properly, especially for the Google Chrome browser extension install and IE9’s opt-out list management. This would limit such usage to a minority rather than majority-by-default.
  2. Blockage Target: All the three Privacy Features specifically target 3rd party cookies, which is the type of cookie normally used by the ad networks. There is currently no indication that 1st party cookies are going to be impacted. And since most web analytics (Google Analytics included) use 1st party cookies, the data integrity will very likely remain unaffected by these do not track features.