Stanford tries to improve 'Do Not Track' browser privacy

Stanford University has launched an online privacy initiative meant to complement Do Not Track, an effort aimed at preventing sites from recording people's Web browsing without permission.

Cookie Clearinghouse, launched Wednesday, is expected to improve browser reliability in determining whether a cookie planted by a site is meant only for tracking.

Microsoft sparked a huge uproar among online advertisers last year when it decided to indiscriminately block tracking by default in Internet Explorer 10, which ships with Windows 8.Ã'Â

The idea behind Do Not Track, initially developed at Stanford, is to give people the option of not having their movements on the Web logged by a website or ad network. Most tracking on the Web is done through cookies, small files that sites plant in visitors' browsers, so advertisers can show targeted ads for products and services.

The four major Web browsers, IE, Mozilla Firefox, Google Chrome and Apple's Safari, have their own policies for handling online privacy. Mozilla, which is a member of the Clearinghouse advisory board, is planning to use the initiative's work in Firefox.

The Clearinghouse will create an "allow" list and a "block" list that browsers can incorporate to more accurately distinguish between cookies that provide a better experience on a website and those meant primarily for tracking, said Aleecia M. McDonald, director of privacy for Stanford's Center for Internet and Society.

The Clearinghouse lists will be compiled with the help of the advisory board, which will also include browser maker Opera Software and academic privacy researchers. Stanford hopes the board will grow larger to include more interested parties.

The Clearinghouse will also have an appeal process for companies with cookies on the block list.

[Also see: Privacy experts criticize moves to sidestep IE10's default Do Not Track settings]

Browser makers, government regulators and digital advertisers generally believe in the concept of Do Not Track, but not on the mechanism for implementing it.

Advertisers, which often choose to ignore Do Not Track signals sent by browsers, want to continue their current business model of targeted advertising. On the other hand, privacy advocates and lawmakers believe people should be able to opt out easily.

McDonald said both sides are still talking, but a consensus remains elusive. Ã'Â "There's progress, but it's slow," she said.

Ã'Â The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is expected to eventually adopt standards for implementing a mechanism for Do Not Track in browsers and websites.

While cookies remain the primary means for tracking, the growing use of HTML5, the latest W3C Web development standards, is expected to spawn new technologies for logging the travels of Web users.

The technology includes a cache in which an application can be downloaded to the browser for use online. That cache is also expected to provide another location for storing tracking files.

Those privacy landmines could be addressed by the Clearinghouse in the future, McDonald said. "You could imagine extending the Cookie Clearinghouse to address those technologies," she said. "But for the moment, we will focus on normal cookies, because that's where the bulk of things are today."

Read more about data privacy in CSOonline's Data Privacy section.