Online Privacy

ONLINE TRACKING IS a hot topic these days, with the U.S. asking for tougher online privacy protections. The FTC recently issued a report urging voluntary practices for online businesses regarding data collection. Another proposal suggests building a universal “do not track” function into future Web browsers.

The proposed universal “do not track” tool wouldn’t be robust: It would simply make your browser send a “please don’t track me” request to a website. Given the past misbehavior of Internet behemoths such as Facebook and Google, it’s hard to put much faith in a proposal that wholly relies on the best intentions of site owners.

Nevertheless, that’s the gist of the FTC’s appeal to Internet businesses for voluntary cooperation. Specifically, the agency suggests that privacy controls should be incorporated into new products and services by design; that consumers should have simple means of controlling their personal information; and that corporate data-collection practices should be transparent.

The key here is the call for transparency. Sites commonly use cookies, a bit of code, to recognize you the next time you return. Some cookies play an important part in how the Web works. But other cookies follow you around the Web. Dubbed tracking cookies, they note your browsing habits and activity to help companies determine appropriate ads. Businesses may serve the ads directly, or sell your data.

Tools to Use

If you want to prevent sites from tracking you right now, and if you don’t want to rely on each site’s goodwill (or wait for regulatory agencies to apply pressure), you can turn to third-party browser add-ons.

AVG Do-Not-Track: AVG’s free antivirus program for Windows now provides the company’s Do-Not-Track add-on for Chrome, Firefox, and Internet Explorer. The tool blocks various ad networks by default, but it doesn’t block certain social and Web-analytics items unless you go into the settings and instruct it to do so.

Do Not Track Plus (DNT+): Abine’s Do Not Track Plus supports Chrome, Firefox, IE, and Safari. In my tests it detected many more tracking cookies on each page than AVG’s tool did. DNT+ also stopped all of the cookies that AVG allowed by default, including Facebook buttons and Google’s +1 button. DNT+ still lets you use such social functions if you click on them. (Using DNT+ in Chrome, however, I could not get the Facebook ‘Like’ button to work.)

Ghostery: We found this helpful tool so appealing that we included it on our “Best Free Stuff” list this year. By default, though, Ghostery merely alerts you to cookies’ presence; to start blocking them, you must enable the feature in the settings. In my tests it was not quite as effective as DNT+, but it was certainly better than the AVG tool.

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