Why I do not trust Do Not Track... yet

Stop sign

Davey Winder applauds Microsoft's attempt to build privacy into its browser, but questions its effectiveness

Attempting to delete your digital footprint is usually dismissed, quite rightly, as something that isn’t possible any more. Not that you were ever really able to make all traces of your online travels vanish.

My advice, when asked how to remove something online, has always been: "If you don’t want the world to know, then don’t put it on the internet in the first place." But your digital footprint consists of more than embarrassing photographs and thoughtless comments – it’s a bit more literal than that: your footprint shows where you’ve been and where you’ve come from.

With absolutely no agreement in the online industry – or among those who attempt to regulate it and set standards – about how to respond to DNT signals, what’s the point?

These two facts are of huge importance to those who’d like to sell you stuff, and equally important to those who’d defend your right to privacy online. Regular visitors to this website may have noticed that, a few months ago, there was a notice asking you to provide consent for cookies to be used when you visit.

This came about as a result of the introduction of an update to existing EU cookie laws – article 5(3) of the ePrivacy Directive to be precise – that requires explicit consent be given in order for tracking cookies to be used online.

Now, in what may come as a surprising move to many people, Microsoft appears to have taken the ethical high road when it comes to privacy: Windows 8 and Internet Explorer 10 users will find that a "Do Not Track" (DNT) feature hasn’t only been built into the latest incarnation of the browser, but is switched on by default.

This makes it the first mainstream browser I’m aware of to do this. IE9, you may recall, added DNT functionality back at the start of 2011, but this had to be specifically turned on by the user. Privacy by default is something I’ve been championing for many years, and it’s fallen on deaf ears among the majority of vendors for most of that time. Opting users out of being tracked by default has to be the way forward from a realistic consumer-privacy perspective, rather than leaving them to opt out manually (assuming they even know they have the option).

I’m not going to get into the argument here about whether behavioural advertising and the associated tracking to enable it is a good or bad thing for commerce – that’s something for my colleagues writing in the business pages to address. However, informed choice is never a bad thing, and doubly so when it’s about your privacy.

It’s the informed bit that concerns me slightly, though, as I’m not yet convinced that DNT itself is anything more than, ironically, a marketing exercise by Microsoft. You see, for DNT to actually have any meaning in the real world, every website you visit has to know what you expect to happen when that DNT signal is received from your browser. With absolutely no agreement in the online industry – or among those who attempt to regulate it and set standards – about how to respond to DNT signals, what’s the point?

Microsoft says that it’s lobbying from within the various industry, government and standards bodies for browser DNT to be respected, as well as committing its Microsoft Advertising business to recognising DNT as an opt-out of behavioural advertising in a self-regulatory fashion (although this isn’t yet happening as far as I’m aware). So DNT is by no means a done deal, although it’s a move in the right direction – and, hopefully, a move that the rest of the industry will come to agree is the right way to build the trust that consumers need if they’re to continue doing business online.