“Do Not Track” had a lofty goal: A simple checkbox in every web browser that would tell websites not to track you. It achieved that goal, but here’s the problem: Websites didn’t care.
As we pointed out back in 2012, the “Do Not Track” option doesn’t stop you from being tracked. It just sends a special piece of information whenever you connect to a website, asking that website not to track you. The vast, vast majority of websites ignored this. That never really changed. There was no penalty for ignoring the request and little reason to actually honor it.
Still, “Do Not Track” has been shuffling along for years. This option is part of Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, Apple Safari, Microsoft Edge, and Internet Explorer. You can go check the box and that might make you feel a bit better if you’re upset about being tracked online. But it doesn’t really do anything. It’s misleading.
In fact, Do Not Track has been used to track people. If you’ve enabled Do Not Track, it’s an extra piece of information about you that can be tracked. Advertisers could direct privacy-related advertisements your way, for example.
Everyone was content to ignore that useless checkbox for a while, but now it looks like DNT is finally collapsing. As DuckDuckGo noticed, Apple is removing the “Do Not Track” preference from Safari. As Gizmodo spotted, work on the standard quietly ended on January 17, 2019. With the standard abandoned and the first browser dropping it, we expect other browser makers to follow Apple’s lead.
Is this bad? No. “Do Not Track” never went anywhere and was widely ignored. At this point, the Do Not Track option acts a placebo and misleads people just by existing. It’s long past time to get rid of DNT.
Do Not Track’s history is messy. Microsoft only made the problem worse by enabling it by default in Internet Explorer 10, causing more websites to ignore it. That’s particularly funny because Microsoft itself never obeyed the DNT setting, saying that “Because there is not yet a common understanding of how to interpret the DNT signal, Microsoft services do not currently respond to browser DNT signals.”
Modern browsers that include tracking protection don’t wait for a “common understanding” to develop in the industry. Instead, they proactively block trackers. Apple’s own Safari browser includes “Intelligent Tracking Protection” that prevents sites you don’t visit directly from tracking you. Mozilla Firefox includes a content-blocking feature you can enable to block a list of known trackers.
That’s not to say tracking or targeted advertising is necessarily bad. There are arguments for and against it. But, as a society, let’s have that discussion without the distraction of a misleading checkbox that doesn’t actually do anything.