Google Adds No-Track Feature To Chrome

Google’s Keep My Opt-Outs extension gives Chrome users a persistent way to opt out of data tracking

Google has thrown its own hat into the ring in efforts to address privacy concerns related to online behavioural tracking.

Roughly 24 hours after Mozilla pitched its idea for a “Do Not Track” mechanism for Firefox, Google announced an extension for the Google Chrome browser that will allow users to permanently opt out of being tracked online by advertisers’ cookies, provided the companies offer opt-outs through industry self-regulation programmes.

Keep My Opt-Outs

Google is calling the technology “Keep My Opt-Outs“, which it is touting as a one-step, persistent opt-out of personalised advertising and related data tracking by companies. The extension will not opt users out of cookies unrelated to personalised ads, or from ads coming from companies that do not participate “in self-regulatory efforts”, the company wrote in a Frequently Asked Questions on the add-on.

“Advertising companies that are members of the Network Advertising Initiative (NAI) already let you opt out of tracking for the purposes of personalising advertisements, and many online advertisers and trade associations have also joined a major self-regulatory effort to enforce a uniform privacy icon for ads, as well as opt-out guidelines,” Google product managers Sean Harvey and Rajas Moonka wrote in a joint blog post.

“There are more than 50 companies that are members that offer opt-outs via these programmes, including the Top 15 largest ad networks in the US,” they added. “Some, like Google, enable you not only to opt out, but to tailor the personalisation of ads by specifying what types of ads you’re most interested in seeing.”

On 23 January, Mozilla revealed plans for a “Do Not Track” feature that will let a website know when a user wants to opt out of third-party tracking for behavioural advertising by sending a Do Not Track HTTP header every time their data is requested from the web. The HTTP header will not be turned on by default.

“We believe the header-based approach has the potential to be better for the web in the long run because it is a clearer and more universal opt-out mechanism than cookies or blacklists,” blogged Alex Fowler, Mozilla’s technology and privacy officer.

Microsoft has also offered up an approach with the TPL (Tracking Protection List) feature included in Internet Explorer 9. The TPL stores web addresses the browser will visit only if the user clicks on a link or types in the address.

Technical challenge

The industry has faced a recurring technical challenge with opt-outs and controls, Harvey and Moonka blogged.

“If you clear your browser’s cookies, all customised settings – including these opt-outs – are lost,” they wrote. “Another challenge is that sometimes new companies offer opt-outs, so you’d have to check frequently to make sure you’re opted out of what you want. A better Do Not Track mechanism is a browser extension that means you can easily opt out of personalised advertising from all participating ad networks only once and store that setting permanently.”

A Google spokesperson told eWEEK that many ad networks already offer individual opt-outs, which are typically achieved by attaching an “opt-out cookie” – a small file containing a string of characters that stores a preference for opting out – to a user’s browser.

“Opt-out cookies in the industry, however, can be lost when a user clears cookies,” the spokesperson said. “Keep My Opt-Outs preserves an opt-out cookie, even if users clear other cookies from their browsers.”

Google has already made a plug-in available for all major browsers that enables users to opt out of Google’s advertising cookie. The company has also built cookie controls directly into Chrome, and integrated Adobe Flash Player storage management into these controls.

“Today we are building on this work, and that of others, by allowing you to permanently opt out of ad tracking from all companies that offer opt-outs through the industry self-regulation programmes,” Harvey and Moonka blogged. “Keep in mind that once you install the Keep My Opt-Outs extension, your experience of online ads may change: You may see the same ads repeatedly on particular websites, or see ads that are less relevant to you.”