What if using the Web didn’t mean sacrificing your privacy?

We’ve spent years thinking about simple ways for everyday users to demand real privacy online. And, working in consultation with privacy experts across the globe, we’ve got a blueprint for addressing one particularly challenging privacy dilemma: online tracking.

EFF just released the first detailed policy implementation of Do Not Track (DNT) as a Web privacy opt-out. We’ve also created a less technical guideline to the policy

DNT is a browser setting available in popular browsers. When activated, it signals to websites that the user does not consent to tracking. EFF’s Do Not Track policy is both a rules-of-the-road for services that want to treat users' data respectfully and the logical engine behind our new anti-tracker plug-in, Privacy Badger. When a user turns on DNT—signaling that she doesn’t want her browsing activities tracked—compliant service providers agree to turn off much of their tracking capabilities. Our policy explains how those service providers should act. 

Privacy Badger exists for Firefox and Chrome. Once installed, it configures the DNT header automatically so that the browser broadcasts to the world that the user doesn't want to be tracked. Privacy Badger then examines any website visited to check whether it has agreed to honor DNT. If no policy is visible, Privacy Badger scans for visible or invisible "third party" scripts or images that appear to be tracking anyway, and blocks them. In essence, Privacy Badger serves as a technical measure for enforcing the privacy ideals at the heart of the DNT policy.

We Want A Universal Opt-Out From Tracking

Tracking systems are everywhere on the Web, and just clearing your cookies isn’t a sufficient defense against the myriad tools used to track you online. 

Online trackers collect and correlate data about the Web activity of individuals or devices without consent, not just with cookies but with supercookies, system fingerprints, and other unique identifiers to spy on user browsing habits. Normally, their purpose is to profile people so as to increase revenue through 'behavioral advertising' as well as to enable retargeting—where companies follow you around the Web hoping to close a potential sale. Some people are okay with this tracking because they find the ads more relevant, but others find it creepy. Social networks, market research, and analytics companies are also collecting sensitive information about user activity, and they typically do it without consent as well.

In response to public controversy, and to stave off the threat of regulation, the Digital Advertising Association (DAA) launched a self-regulatory scheme called AdChoices, an opt-out not from tracking but from targeted ads. Their system is cumbersome to activate, relies upon cookies (risking later deletion and a return to square one), and is not comprehensive in its coverage. Worst of all, it does not actually stop tracking.

Right now, the only option for users who want to protect their privacy online is to use some kind of technological fix, like "tracker protection” extensions or settings in the browser, which block known or identifiable trackers. EFF’s tracking protection extension is called Privacy Badger, and can be downloaded for free.

Because many ads are designed to track user activity across the Web, they get blocked as well. Some argue that ad blocking undermines the sustainability of websites that rely on ad revenue, but if viewing online ads comes at the cost of individual privacy, then the price is too high.

We’d like to strike a balance between the needs of users and website operators by creating clear, reasonable guidelines for respecting user privacy. That's the idea behind EFF’s DNT policy.

A Little History on DNT and the W3C

DNT is a browser setting available in popular browsers. When activated, it signals to websites that the user does not consent to tracking.

DNT was first proposed in 2007 in response to advertising models based on the accumulation and exploitation of user data. Controversy grew as media reports like the Wall Street Journal's 'What They Know' series drew attention to the sophisticated and nontransparent tactics used to track users online. This led the Federal Trade Commission and others to back DNT as a solution.

In 2011, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C)—the organization that develops standards for the Web—convened a working group to define how DNT could work, what it would mean, and how sites should comply with it. The group included representatives from the technology, advertising, and publishing sectors, as well as consumer and privacy advocates (including EFF).

The W3C working group meetings were contentious. From the outset, parts of the advertising industry cast doubt on the very existence of a privacy harm for DNT to address. Then they argued that DNT should mean “do not target,” basically the same system that AdChoices uses. EFF engaged with W3C for some time in hopes that a reasonable standard for protecting user privacy could be created. However, the door on this standard closed in September 2013 with the withdrawal of the Digital Advertising Alliance from the process, de facto representatives of the biggest online advertising companies.

The W3C has persevered on finalizing a DNT policy. But after thousands of emails and innumerable meetings, the standard still isn't ready. EFF wants to build on the W3C's work, so we're taking their technical blueprint for DNT and proposing a guide for its implementation, so that companies can put it into action and users benefit from it—right away.

Our Response: Rules for Websites and A Tool for Users

Our approach works on two levels. The DNT policy sets out what is expected from companies who follow EFF's framework in response to the browser signal. These rules and exceptions strike a balance between user privacy and the needs of data service operators. The policy is also implemented technically by Privacy Badger, which seeks to enforce DNT's principles if companies do not respect them.

At the core of our project is the protection of users' reading habits and browsing history, and a conviction that this is personal information that should not be accessed without consent. Websites and apps adopting DNT agree to abide by that principle. They promise only to collect the data necessary for use of their services, and to discard it as soon as practically possible. If a website wants to collect more, it cannot hide that policy in unread “Terms & Conditions.” Our policy requires that consent for tracking be obtained in a clear and unambiguous manner. One of our first implementers, Medium, offers a great example, making it clear to users at login that from that point onwards their reading will be logged:

Fig.1 Medium.com provides DNT users with clear enough guidance at log-in to obtain consent.

The policy includes exceptions to accommodate the everyday practicalities of the Web. Users know that when they click an ad, post a comment, or make a purchase, data will be retained about these events. Likewise, service operators have legitimate concerns such as security, fraud prevention, and statistics, and there are reasonable exceptions for these issues.

Companies supporting DNT do so voluntarily, but once they have promised to abide by its conditions they can be held to that promise by law. Of course the policy is also enforced directly by Privacy Badger and the other privacy tools who have agreed to adopt it, like AdBlock and Disconnect.  We hope that mainstream Web browsers begin to offer these protections to their users soon too.

As well as protecting users' privacy, we also want to reward companies that actually respect DNT. Privacy Badger, EFF's tracker-blocking browser extension, will do exactly that. Privacy Badger will block the creepy trackers that are spying on you, while allowing the companies that pledge to respect your privacy to display their embedded content unhindered—including their ads.

Many websites currently rely on online advertising for their revenue stream, but this does not mean that we should allow the Web to be a ubiquitous surveillance apparatus. Our DNT policy offers a new pact between users and websites to make the Internet a better place. For websites who refuse to do the right thing, Privacy Badger offers a tool for users who want to protect themselves.