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Google 'Do Not Track' extension preempts feds, Mozilla

Behavioral ad self-police

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Google has released a Chrome browser extension that lets you opt-out of tracking cookies from multiple online advertising networks. The move comes less than two months after the US Federal Trade Commission called for a "Do Not Track" mechanism that would let "consumers choose whether to allow the collection of data regarding their online searching and browsing activities" and just hours after Mozilla unveiled a proposal for such a mechanism.

Known as Keep My Opt-Outs, the new Chrome extension handles opt-outs for ad networks that are part of the industry's self-regulation program for online behavioral advertising. Asked if this was a case of an industry policing itself before the government police arrive, a Google spokeswoman said: "I don't know if I would frame it that way, but we certainly believe that self-regulation has worked very well so far."

The spokeswoman was unsure of how many ad networks were covered by the extension, but she said it does handle the top 15 networks in the US.

Earlier on Monday, Mozilla unveiled a "Do Not Track" proposal that would require the cooperation of website operators. "We are proposing a feature that allows users to set a browser preference that will broadcast their desire to opt-out of third party, advertising-based tracking by transmitting a Do Not Track HTTP header with every click or page view in Firefox," the open source outfit said in a blog post.

"When the feature is enabled and users turn it on, websites will be told by Firefox that a user would like to opt-out of [online behavioral advertising]."

In March 2009, Google unveiled a new behavioral advertising setup that it billed as "interest-based advertising". On YouTube and across sites using its AdSense ad network, the company began showing showing ads to netizens based on the pages they had visited in the past. "We think we can make online advertising even more relevant and useful by using additional information about the websites people visit," Google vice president Susan Wojcicki wrote in a blog post entitled "Making ads more interesting."

When it announced the program, Google also offered various tools that let you opt-out, and these included opt-out browser extensions for Firefox and Internet Explorer. Google has since introduced similar extensions for all major browsers, but like the original Firefox and IE extensions, these only handle Google's ad network.

The new extension is meant to work across third-party ad networks as well, and it's designed to maintain opt-outs even if you regularly clear your cookies. Some existing ad-network opt-outs are themselves cookie-based. "Today we are building on [Google' s previous opt-out] work, and that of others, by allowing you to permanently opt out of ad tracking from all companies that offer opt-outs through the industry self-regulation programs," Google said on Monday in a blog post. But the company also made a point of saying that if you install the extension, advertisements won't be tailored to your particular online habits.

"Keep in mind that once you install the Keep My Opt-Outs extension, your experience of online ads may change: You may see the same ads repeatedly on particular websites, or see ads that are less relevant to you," the company said.

In the wake of Google's 2009 behavioral advertising roll-out, privacy crusader Christopher Soghoian offered up a Firefox plug-in that maintained opt-outs for 27 separate behavioral ad networks. He called it the Targeted Advertising Cookie Opt-Out project – TACO for short. He later sold TACO to a Massachusetts-based software outfit known as Abine, which rolled the plug-in into a suite of other security and privacy tools. Albine and Mozilla were accused of distributing bloatware after the add-on was automatically updated via Firefox's built-in update mechanism, and the project was quickly forked under the name Beef TACO.

At the moment, Google is offering an opt-out extension only for Chrome. But the company told us that it is working on extensions for other browsers as well. ®

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