EFF's new Do Not Track standard seeks to stop sneaky data collection

The new Do Not Track standard proposed by the EFF won't do much for users right now, but it's a step toward clearer rules.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation is trying to make "Do Not Track" more meaningful with some clear rules for the web to follow.

The new policy seeks to stop websites and advertisers from tracking users through cookies, fingerprints, and supercookies when users enable the Do Not Track setting in their browsers. Most notably, the policy makes clear that websites should not even collect this data for themselves, let alone use it to track users across the web. (Some exceptions apply, such as collecting data to comply with the law, or to complete an online purchase.)

While the anti-collection clause may seem obvious, previous attempts at Do Not Track haven't taken such a hard stance. Rules proposed by the World Wide Web Consortium, for instance, still allow a website to "collect, retain, and use data" for its own network, such as "customizing content, services, and advertising." Today, advertisers who claim to comply with Do Not Track may still be collecting data, just for a narrower scope of uses.

Of course, the EFF's Do Not Track policy still faces the same challenges as previous efforts. Participation is entirely voluntary, as there's no law on the books that requires websites to comply. Without additional tools such as the EFF's own Privacy Badger, many websites can (and will) track your activity even with Do Not Track enabled in your web browser. Major Internet companies like Yahoo and Google have little incentive to follow strict Do Not Track rules, as their business models rely on personalized advertising based on your browsing activity.

Still, the EFF has managed to get a few companies on board with its proposal, including the publishing site Medium, the analytics service Mixpanel, the ad-blocking extension AdBlock, and the privacy-focused search engine DuckDuckGo.

Why this matters: Studies have shown that users are confused by Do Not Track and what it actually accomplishes, and that may be by design. The World Wide Web Consortium has spent years trying to nail down rules that might actually be adopted by major Internet companies, but in doing so have come up with a watered-down proposal and no guarantee that anyone will adopt it anyway. The EFF is now trying to take matters into its own hands, and while this ultimately creates a competing standard--and probably even more confusion--at least it gives websites and advertisers a chance to stand out on respecting users' privacy.

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