User mindset biggest hurdle to 'do not track'

Consumers are unaware of browser anti-tracking tools or too accustomed to leaving online trail, analysts say, adding such mechanisms need to be more user-friendly.
Written by Jamie Yap, Contributor

Consumers, rather than corporations, are potentially the biggest barrier for browser anti-tracking technology to take off as many are either unaware of, or accustomed to, leaving behind an online trail, say analysts. According to them, the effectiveness of any anti-tracking tool boils down to ease of user implementation and the desire to make informed choices.

Since the U.S Federal Trade Commission (FTC) announced its "do not track" proposal last December, there has been a slew of different anti-tracking features touted by Web browsers, including Microsoft's Internet Explorer (IE), Mozilla's Firefox and Google's Chrome. While different in execution, each touts the same ability of letting users allow or prevent online tracking--a method companies use to monitor a person's online behavior as they browse the Web and then provide relevant, targeted or personalized advertising.

For instance, Mozilla in February launched its Do Not Track feature in the beta 4.0 version of its Firefox browser, which sends out a HTTP header instructing a Web site that a user has opted out of online behavioral tracking.

Even if a user indicates he does not want his browsing activity to be tracked, the anti-tracking feature is effective only when advertisers cooperate by acceding to the user's wish, admitted Alex Fowler, Mozilla's global privacy and public policy leader, in a blog post.

In an e-mail interview with ZDNet Asia, Naveen Hedge, market analyst at IDC's Asia-Pacific software research group, acknowledged the thorny issue, saying that there would initially be resistance from companies since anti-tracking may impact online advertisement revenues.

Ovum senior analyst Mike Davis concurred, stating that marketing and e-commerce businesses would "obviously not support anti-tracking".

Consumers used to outcomes of tracking
On the other hand, the biggest hindrance to anti-tracking adoption may be the consumers themselves. Davis said in an e-mail that most consumers would never have thought about putting a stop to online behavioral tracking simply because they are already accustomed to the outcomes of the process. For instance, when a user is shopping online, a site may suggest other similar or related items for him to consider purchasing.

At the same time, Davis noted that the majority of consumers are "very ignorant of the volume of information they give away both directly and indirectly, but [they] appreciate the targeted discount vouchers [anyway]".

The Ovum analyst iterated that "there are at least two types of Netizens--those cognizant of their presence and availability [being] sold on the Web, and those who 'blindly' look for the best e-commerce deals".

The first group is likely to be prepared for a reduction in user experience as they surf, since anti-tracking would consequently make ads less relevant to them, whereas the latter represents "a good proportion of people [who] don't care about privacy when they shop or surf and just want their [Web experience] to be as easy and rewarding as possible".

Keeping it simple
Asked whether anti-tracking tools will gain traction with users in the near future, Shar VanBoskirk, vice president and principal analyst with Forrester Research, replied in an e-mail that she "does not have too high an expectation" for any anti-tracking mechanism so far as they require too much effort from end users.

She, too, agreed that there is a lack of consumer awareness of online tracking, despite their grievances about the lack of privacy. "Consumers don't like the notion of their data being sold or used inappropriately, but most don't have any idea what tracking is or how their data is being used."

VanBoskirk added that most users will not make the effort to familiarize themselves with anti-tracking know-how or implement the tools. "Inertia wins, even in the light of sensitivity toward data usage," she said.

While IDC's Hedge acknowledged that most consumers do have very little knowledge of who tracks their online activities, he pointed out that with people increasing living their lives online, privacy has become a hot topic. Not only are lawmakers and regulators considering the concept of requiring browser makers to include a security feature that allows users to opt out of behavioral tracking and targeted advertisements, users themselves are becoming increasingly aware of the choice to decide whether or not they want their online activity to be tracked, he said.

The IDC analyst however, noted that many Internet users today are not savvy enough to figure out anti-tracking mechanisms. Browser makers, therefore, need to ensure that regardless of the method, such tools should be easy for a person to use and implement, he emphasized.

One aspect of user-friendliness could be that the anti-tracking tool signals to users whenever their information is at risk, and at that point checks whether they want to stop data tracking from being performed by companies, he suggested.

Ovum's Davis added that the type of anti-tracking mechanism is actually "irrelevant" to whether it is effective in protecting a user's information from being tracked. He highlighted that the decision process of the user is key, and that a user should be presented in a structured manner the options, pros and cons of selecting a particular mechanism in order to make an informed decision.

Different anti-tracking tools available
Contrary to Mozilla's approach, IE's tracking prevention tool is not contingent on mutual cooperation from advertisers, but at the same time requires more effort from the user.

Tracking Protection, which is now available in the release candidate version of IE9, allows a user to maintain a list of Web site addresses which IE will not send his information to. The feature is not turned on by default in the browser--users have to opt-in to enable it as well as create their own protections lists or look for others.

Jonathan Wong, IE product manager at Microsoft Asia-Pacific, said in an e-mail that Tracking Protection is opt-in rather than opt-out because "people have different browsing preferences online". He explained that IE's focus is to provide user choice and control over their privacy online and "we believe opt-in achieves this".

Wong also noted that customers can easily turn the feature on or off from the settings in their browser. Once a customer adds a list, filtering remains enabled across browsing sessions until the customer turns it off. The IE browser also automatically checks for updates to the lists on a regular basis, he added.

Google Chrome's anti-tracking feature, a free browser extension called Keep My Opt-Outs, works by allowing users to permanently opt out of personalized ad-tracking. The opt-out, however, is applicable only to ad networks that have agreed to participate in industry opt-out programs such as the Network Advertising Initiative.

A Google spokesperson told ZDNet Asia in an e-mail statement that as more companies adopt industry privacy standards, their opt-outs will be automatically added to Keep My Opt-Outs, and users will be prompted to update the extension. It is a one-time, permanent step to prevent online tracking, and users can turn the functionality off by uninstalling the extension, she explained.

Editorial standards