For all the talk among among policymakers and the press about online privacy, it still isn’t clear how much average consumers are even aware of online ad tracking. Firefox, the browser of choice for a third of all internet users, is apparently looking to change that. The beta of the latest version of Firefox trumpets the new “Do Not Track” feature prominently — listing it, in large font, as the very first item on the “What’s New in Firefox 4″ page. The move could increase the pressure on other browser companies as well as advertisers to beef up their own privacy options.
Mozilla announced months ago that it would put a Do Not Track option in the new version of Firefox — so in that sense, the release of the beta version isn’t a surprise. But what is unexpected is the headline “Opt Out of Ad Tracking” splashed across the company’s upgrade page.
Firefox’s Do Not Track feature is a “header” that transmits a user’s preference to not be tracked to every website visited. At this point, Do Not Track is a political move more than a working feature, because it will only become useful if advertisers and analytics companies accept it.
But as the politics of privacy go, this is a fairly bold move that could raise the bar on what is expected of competing browser makers. While Microsoft (NSDQ: MSFT) has also made a serious effort to include enhanced privacy features in its upcoming new browser, Google’s response to privacy concerns so far has been a pretty weak suggestion-a Chrome extension that clears cookies-and fourth-place browser maker Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) has been missing from the whole discussion.
All Firefox has really done here is raise the privacy issue in a prominent way, and told its users that they “won’t notice any difference in your browsing until sites and advertisers agree to respond to your preference.” But down the road that could raise a big question in the minds of the many web users who surely will be sending out that no-tracking signal-why aren’t these online publishers listening to me?
Mozilla privacy chief Sid Stamm wrote on his “extreme geekboy” blog that the organization will be working on additional features to protect user privacy even when a Do Not Track request isn’t honored.
The new Firefox also seals up a privacy loophole known as “history sniffing” that allowed advertisers or other would-be trackers to exploit the feature in web browsers that colors visited links differently than unvisited ones, and compile lists of what websites users have visited.