In almost all the browsers that come in different versions, users themselves have to enable the ‘Do not track’ feature, ways of doing which may vary in each case

Major browsers have incorporated options for users to indicate whether or not they would like to let websites track their activity online, even as the global web standards organisation, W3C, is trying to build a consensus on technical standards that could be made universally applicable to such tracking.

Among major browsers, Google Chrome is the latest to have incorporated a ‘Do not track’ feature in a recently-released version, with Mozilla Firefox having been the first one to introduce it last year.

Other browsers such as Internet Explorer and Safari also added this feature, as the trend grew to empower web users with greater control over their privacy. In almost all the browsers, which come in different versions, the users themselves have to enable the ‘Do not track’ (DNT) feature, the ways of doing which may vary in each case.

The different players who collect data and track user behaviour online, sometimes surreptitiously, include advertisers seeking insights into online behaviour patterns to further their strategies, organisations that seek to mould their content based on user preferences and behaviour and numerous social media companies, especially those providing third party services.

The W3C has set up a Tracking Protection Working Group that includes browser vendors, content providers, advertisers, those dealing with search engines, and experts in policy, privacy and consumer protection. It has come up with drafts of these standards.

Not many users like the snooping that many sites resort to, for commercial or other reasons. “The new standard will allow users to express a preference whether or not data about them can be collected for tracking purposes,” which helps to “prevent surprises and re-establish trust in the marketplace,” the W3C says.

But as conceived now, the DNT standards will only signal the desire of the user to opt out of tracking. Whether this desire is to be ‘honoured’ or not is left to the websites that users visit or the providers of the web services they make use of, though the standards will define mechanisms for them “to signal whether and how” they will do this. An option may also be given for users to grant site-specific exceptions to DNT. But then, would not a better option be to empower users with technical tools that enable site-blocking or prevent tracking?

To this, Nick Doty of the W3C Tracking Protection Team told The Hindu, “There may be alternative technical tools to address certain user concerns, including browser-based blocking mechanisms. We believe DNT has the advantage of being agnostic to the particular tracking technology — users can express a single preference rather than managing tools for every potential tracking technology.”

Privacy was an area of major concern for the W3C. Privacy considerations were being given particular attention while developing the Open Web Platform and related technologies, he said.

Asked about the efficacy of laws dealing with tracking and online privacy in India, Mishi Choudhary, executive and legal director, Software Freedom Law Centre, India, said the country did not have specific privacy legislation and instead had various sector-specific legislations that dealt with privacy rights in the context of that particular sector.

The IT Act mandated the imposition and use of appropriate data protection standards for corporate bodies possessing, dealing with or handling sensitive personal data in computer resources owned or operated by them.

But a Privacy Act was in the offing. A group of experts under the chairmanship of the former Chief Justice of the Delhi High Court, Justice A. P. Shah, was constituted by the Planning Commission to make recommendations on privacy issues.

The group's report, submitted in October, recommends nine fundamental privacy principles as the bedrock of a proposed Privacy Act — notice, choice and consent, collection limitation, purpose limitation, access and correction, disclosure of information, security, openness and accountability.

Meanwhile, the final version of the W3C DNT or Tracking Preference Expression specifications is expected to be ready in 2013. “W3C specifications go through several levels of maturity before being endorsed as final recommendations. We will see implementations [among web browsers and online services] well before the final approval,” said Mr. Doty.

And the group's mission was “to create a broadly acceptable protocol.” “Much of the success of the Web has resulted from voluntary adoption of standards. Thus, a high-quality standard that reflects industry consensus has a good chance of being effective,” he said.

Sometimes tracking is done to offer a better and friendlier experience while using a site. As the W3C itself explains, “Many users appreciate the personalisation made possible through this data collection: an improved user experience, reduction in irrelevant or repetitive ads, and avoidance of ‘pay-walls’ or subscription-only services.”

Interestingly, the advertising industry in the U.S., which has been pushing for self-regulation of online data collection by its members, has made it clear that browser makers turning on DNT by default would not be acceptable to it. Enabling it should be a user-driven option, the Digital Advertising Alliance has asserted.