For a while now, the web browser vendors and major purveyors of targeted internet advertising have been working on a proposal for allowing users to prevent web sites from tracking their online activity and using it to “customize their web browsing experience,” a.k.a., displaying targeted advertisements which are, theoretically, tailored to the person viewing them.
Web tracking and targeted advertising is big business. In fact, some would say that without it, most of the free web sites you visit every day simply couldn’t exist. Facebook, HuffPo, Reddit, Gawker, etc. all pay the bills by selling advertising that is carefully targeted to individual users based on their past web browsing activity.
“Do Not Track” advocates say that users should have the right to preserve their privacy. Opponents, on the other hand, say that it improves everyone’s web experience by making it more likely that the content and ads they see will be interesting to them, and that (as noted above) without targeted advertising, many web sites simply could not afford to continue offering free content. Advocates respond by saying that whether someone’s web experience is targeted should be their choice, and that if targeted advertising becomes less profitable, web sites will be able to find other successful monetization strategies.
If you are uncomfortable with the amount of information that seems to be collected about you as you browse the internet (and you should be!), you should seriously think about enabling do-not-track in your browser. Here’s how:
- In Firefox, go to the Edit | Preferences or Tools | Options menu command, click on the “Privacy” tab, and check “Tell websites I do not want to get tracked”.
- In Chrome, install the Do Not Track extension.
- In Safari, go to the Safari | Preferences | Advanced | Privacy menu command and click on Website Tracking. If that doesn’t work (old version of Safari), go to the Safari | Preferences menu command, click on the Advanced tab, enable “Show Develop menu in menu bar”, and go to the Develop | Send Do Not Track HTTP Header menu command.
- In Internet Explorer 9, click here to add an empty Tracking Protection list, and click “Add List” when prompted.
- In Opera, follow these instructions.
- In Internet Explorer 10, do-not-track is enabled by default, which has caused quite a controversy.
If you enable do-not-track, then you will be accomplishing two things: (1) increasing your privacy on the internet (though it is not entirely clear how much your privacy will increase), and (2) making yourself part of the new and exciting real-world experiment to find out if, indeed, the web sites that rely on targeted advertising to fund free content will be able to find a different source of income.