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Online advertisers are being pressured by regulators in both the U.S. and Europe to accept a new web browser option called Do Not Track. It's supposed to let people request more privacy from the websites they visit. The problem? There's no agreement yet on how much privacy. As NPR's Martin Kaste reports, an Internet industry task force is meeting this week in Washington, D.C., to try to figure that out.
MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Some browsers already come with a do-not-track button - Internet Explorer, Safari, Firefox - and other browsers are expected to add the option soon.
JONATHAN MAYER: And there are over 10 million users who have turned it on already.
KASTE: Jonathan Mayer is a Stanford grad student specializing in computer science and law, and he's helped to popularize the idea. Essentially, the do-not-track option sends a signal, telling websites and online advertisers that you don't want to be tracked.
MAYER: There's a coalition of online advertising companies that has promised to begin listening for that signal, including some of the largest players in online advertising - Google and Yahoo. But it's not quite clear yet what it's going to mean for them to listen to that signal.
KASTE: That's the question that's now before the tracking protection working group of the World Wide Web Consortium. The W3C may not be a household name but for years, it's been setting standards for how websites work. Now, it's trying to set the standard for how web sites should respond when you click that do-not-track button.
Jeffrey Chester will be part of the meeting. He's a privacy advocate with the Center for Digital Democracy. He thinks it's pretty obvious what the do-not-track button should mean.
JEFFREY CHESTER: Do not track me at all. Don't follow me when I go around, site to site. And get rid of any data that you've collected about me, right away.
KASTE: But online advertisers, who also have a seat at the table, don't even like the concept of the do-not-track button. Mike Zaneis, of the Interactive Advertisers Bureau, says it sends consumers the wrong message.
MIKE ZANEIS: If you put a big, red, flashing button on a browser toolbar, they're going to be scared - and they're going to turn it on. And they're not going to understand that they have just exited the value exchange which allows companies to invest in content and services, almost all of which are freely available to the consumer.
KASTE: Zaneis says advertisers are happy to let consumers opt out of data collection. He points to an industry-sponsored website called AboutAds.info, where you can notify participating advertisers not to collect data from you.
ZANEIS: We've stood up a self-regulatory program - through the Digital Advertising Alliance - which is delivering additional transparency and consumer control today.
KASTE: Privacy advocates are not impressed.
MAYER: I think it's just pure deception, at this point.
KASTE: Jonathan Mayer says the industry website puts cookies on your computer to be able to remember which data collection you've opted out of. And as soon as you delete cookies, your data start getting collected again. But more important, he says, the industry's opt-out rules come with some broad exceptions.
MAYER: Some exceptions like product improvement. So if they're collecting data for the purpose of making their product better, then it's actually OK.
KASTE: Not that there won't be exceptions under the do-not-track system. Privacy advocates admit that you can't have an absolute ban on data collection. Websites need some basic information just to operate. But, they say, they'd rather see those data-collection rules agreed upon in an open forum, like this week's W3C meeting - as opposed to letting the advertising industry write its own rules.
Martin Kaste, NPR News.