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Friday, March 30, 2012, 04:30 pm PT (07:30 pm ET)

Google, Facebook working to undermine Do Not Track privacy protections

Google and Facebook, along with other advertising and technology companies, are working to keep government discussions on "Do Not Track" regulations private so they can twist the definition of "consumer tracking" to the point of offering completely meaningless protections for users.

According to a report by the New York Times, tech companies with business models that rely upon tracking user behavior are merely paying lip service to creating an "open and transparent" process for self regulation of how they track users and allow users to opt out.

The report noted that their talk about openness "is relative," citing Jonathan Zuck, president of the Association for Competitive Technology trade association, as saying "If this process takes the form of a public discussion, industry participants will be looking over their shoulders or sitting on their hands instead of offering bold ideas for workable solutions."

Redefining Do Not Track to mean nothing

The report noted that FTC chairman Jon Leibowitz recently warned technology companies that "if companies could not create robust Do Not Track policies themselves, he would favor legislation requiring it."

The Digital Advertising Alliance representing web advertisers said they were surprised by Leibowitz's position and the concept that "Do No Track" might actually mean that they can't continue to collect information on consumers that want to opt out of being tracked by ad networks and their web cookies.

The advertising group insists that its understanding of "Do No Track" means that they can't continue to serve targeted ads at users who opt out, but they can still keep tracking those users' behaviors and collect data on them.

Google was found to be subverting the privacy settings of Safari browser on the desktop and mobile devices, which Apple has configured to opt users out of third party and advertising tracking cookies by default.

Because Apple earns its revenues almost entirely from hardware sales, it doesn't have the same motivation to track users as other browser makers and Internet service providers do. Even Apple's own iAd network gains only limited benefits from reporting user behaviors, making it easy for Apple to offer legitimate opt out options.

In contrast, Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Mozilla and Microsoft have made advertising and user tracking a key linchpin of the business model behind their their browser software and online services.

Do Not (pay attention to the fact we will continue to) Track

While Google stopped the practice of subverting Safari's privacy settings after being called out on the matter, Google and other web advertisers clearly hope to return to doing just that, creating their own version of "opt out" provisions that don't really do anything to actually stop the collection of data of web users.

The report noted that Yahoo "said that it would put a Do Not Track option on its sites that would tell its network sites that a user did not want to be tracked.

"Users who turn on the Do Not Track option in their browsers and visit a Yahoo Web site will not see targeted ads, the company said, but the site will collect user data."

Mozilla, Apple and other browser makers apart from Google's Chrome, have added Do Not Track as a browser feature. Safari 5.2 in OS X Mountain Lion will make this feature easier to find (existing version bury the option in the optional Developer menu).

However, Do Not Track currently only "requests" that web servers not track the user who has turned the option on. Wikipedia notes that "websites are not legally required to comply with do not track requests, neither by law nor by broad social consensus, and therefore very few websites recognize and respect this privacy signal."

We don't need democracy, we have things all under control

The FTC's policy statements on Do Not Track have shifted lobbyists from Google and Facebook into high gear to lobby against the Obama administration on this issue.

Google has hired former New York Republican congresswoman Susan Molinari to lobby on its behalf, while Facebook has hired Greg Maurer, a former aide to House Speaker John Boehner.

California Republican Representative Mary Bono Mack stated at a Do Not Track hearing, "Before we do any possible harm to the Internet, we need to understand what harm is actually being done to consumers. Where is the public outcry for legislation? Today, I’m simply not hearing it. I haven’t gotten a single letter from anyone back home urging me to pass a privacy bill."

However, most users don't realize that everything they do on the web is being tracked by advertising networks in the first place.