One of the internet’s biggest attempts to protect online privacy has hit a wall.
Apple announced last week it is removing the Do Not Track setting from its Safari browser, in part because it could be used to track a person’s browsing activity. Now privacy advocates are worried about what the move could mean for the future of privacy if other browsers follow in Apple’s footsteps.
“[Do Not Track] can lure users into some sense of false security,” said Alan Toner, a special adviser with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights organization. “They think it’s protecting them when it’s not.”
But Toner said Do Not Track is important because it allows people to express their privacy preferences directly to companies. The problem with the Do Not Track setting, he says, is that there aren’t regulations requiring companies to abide by people’s preferences, or major repercussions for companies that ignore them.
For now, Toner is concerned that by removing the feature from Safari, Apple will “undermine any belief in the utility of this system” and prompt other browsers to do the same.
Other privacy experts are hopeful companies will be able to protect consumers in other ways.
“The simple fact is that tracking people without an invitation or a court order is wrong on its face,” said Doc Searls, editor-in-chief of the Linux Journal and co-founder of Customer Commons, a nonprofit for consumers. “That plain ethical principle will apply broadly online as well as off, eventually. The digital world is still very new, and we need time to work these things out.”
Apple’s decision is the latest blow to the years-long attempt by internet companies to agree on a simple privacy protection for consumers. Since 2012, most browsers have offered a Do Not Track setting that people are able to turn on voluntarily. When they browse the internet, the setting instructs websites, advertisers and content providers not to track their online activity. It was meant to be like the Do Not Call registry option to block telemarketing calls.
It has not worked out as companies or consumers hoped.
The groups collecting information about users, such as what led a person to visit their website, don’t actually have to honor the browser setting. And because companies can see who is opting in, they can potentially use the setting to track a person’s activity in even greater detail, according to Apple and experts at the World Wide Web Consortium.
Apple said in a developer note last week that it’s removing the Do Not Track setting on its mobile and PC browsers because of the potential for misuse. The change will take effect in the next major mobile and PC operating system updates.
Google Chrome, Microsoft Edge, and Mozilla Firefox still have the feature on their browsers and haven’t yet announced plans to remove it.