Do You Know Who's Tracking You on the Web?

Imagine a creepy guy wearing a ski mask and a trenchcoat, following you around and scribbling down every place you visit, every item you peruse, and every action you take. Now and again, he races in front of you, opens the trenchcoat, and flashes an ad based on something you just checked out.

That's behaviorally targeted advertising, a multi-billion-dollar industry that shows no signs of stopping. Today both Mozilla and Google offered ways to tell that creepy guy to buzz off.

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Mozilla has proposed a new "don't track me" feature for Firefox that would broadcast a Do Not Track HTTP header to online advertisers, telling them to back off, Jack, and not follow you around the InterWebs (though whether the Web advertiser abides by your request is another matter). Meanwhile, Google announced an extension for Chrome that allows you to keep your opt-out preferences even if you purge all your cookies.

Mozilla's and Google's efforts might seem redundant, considering the industry itself has made moves to implement a voluntary opt-out program. However, the ad industry's plan only works if you've enabled your browser to accept third-party cookies. Odds are if you're the kind to be concerned about tracking cookies, you haven't enabled that feature in the browser -- hence the alternatives from Mozilla and Google.

Believe it or not, targeted ads have their benefits. For example, there's a 0.00000001 percent chance you might see a useful or interesting ad in your daily Web browsing. Also, Net advertising pays for fine sites like the one you are now reading, and targeted ads are where Net advertising is headed. With good reason -- automakers want to reach people who are shopping for cars, not those browsing for toilet bowl cleansers or mail-order brides. If enough people choose to not be tracked, it could theoretically cause some sites to starve to death from a dearth of advertising dollars.

But a creepy guy is still following you, and Lord only knows who else has access to the information he's gathered on you. It's all anonymous fun and games until somebody gets a subpoena and finds out that, yes, they can figure out who you are based on your IP address, your browser configuration, and your surfing history.

Although the various parties seem to have the same ultimate goal, they have vastly different motivations. The online ad industry is trying to avoid federal regulation of ad tracking through its voluntary cookie program, hoping it will sate the FTC's hunger for action and that 99 percent of the Web-surfing public remain blissfully ignorant of that option.

On the other end of the spectrum, the moves by Mozilla, Google, and Microsoft -- which will debut its own don't-track-me-bro blacklist in IE9 -- signal that they don't believe the self-regulatory moves by online advertisers are worth the paper they're not printed on. Their suspicions are not unfounded; notably, some of the 59 companies on that opt-out list (like Quantcast and Specific Media) are being sued for creating and distributing "zombie" cookies -- files that use Adobe Flash to re-create tracking cookies even after a user has opted out. In other words, if you politely ask them to stop using cookies to track you, they'll find another way to do it.

One way or another, the Mozilla, Google, and Microsoft responses to ad tracking technology are too little, too late. Moz and Goog expect advertisers to act in a trustworthy fashion by honoring your requests; Microsoft is relying on users to build their own lists of sites they don't want tracking them, when most of the time you have no flippin' idea which site is doing the tracking. And advertisers are hardly the only ones doing it; widget makers, toolbar hawkers, and various other bottom feeders of the InterWebs have all been found to use tracking technology.

Why should anyone trust these guys? Voluntary self-regulation? As if.

Do you care if online advertisers track you across the Web? Post your thoughts below or email me: cringe@infoworld.com.

This article, "Do you know who's tracking you on the Web?" was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Track the crazy twists and turns of the tech industry with Robert X. Cringeley's Notes from the Field blog, and subscribe to Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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