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Tracking the trackers

For the UK government, browser settings – courtesy of DNT tech – are the main answer to the cookie problem.

To that end, we asked the obvious players to comment on their relationship with Vaizey and his crew towards working on such a solution.

Microsoft, which has questioned the workability of DNT and has recently touted an alternative, offered up this statement:

Microsoft has been part of industry-wide discussions with the UK government over the e-Privacy Directive, including our use of cookies as part of running our ad network; as a website operator and as a browser manufacturer. We are working with the government to help them in their aim to provide an 'eco-system of solutions' which combine to provide the consumer with confidence about their privacy online.

Mozilla's global privacy and public policy wonk Alex Fowler told us that the open-source browser-maker was beavering away at DNT as part of its "mission to improve the web for people everywhere and not directly in response to new regulatory efforts, nor to facilitate compliance with laws like the e-Privacy Directive."

He added: "That said, we believe these browser capabilities will be useful to publishers and advertisers to address some of these provisions and we are excited about how they may drive improved consumer trust and transparency for these important stakeholders."

Fowler also said that the development of DNT was "in the early stages" but that, even so, "rapid adoption" of the tech among browser-makers, advertisers and publishers was starting to happen.

Meanwhile, there are companies out there developing apps that also address the issue of agreeing to be tracked online. Oxford-based Baycloud Systems, for example, has created one such application called CookieQ that inserts a cookie consent button on any web page.

The firm's technical director, Mike O'Neill, has questioned the Cabinet Office's use of Google Analytics in its GOV.UK project - which is a replacement website to Directgov.

"I think the technically meaningless 'intrusive' adjective is being used by the ICO to give them opaque discretion on when to pursue anybody. Since no one knows what it means, nobody can accuse them of being soft in particular situations – like in the GOV.UK case," he told El Reg.

"A cookie is simply a mechanism for encoding a number and used for whatever purpose the software developer wishes. This purpose cannot be simply put into a small number of simple categories, every instance of its use will be different," he continued.

"There may be some general indications that you could use to establish purpose, ie, a cookie whose name component starts with __utm is probably a Google Analytics cookie, but the only thing that can be said with certainty is whether the cookie encodes a value which is different for each visitor. If it is, then the reason needs to be explained, ie: if it's being used to track people and especially if it's being used to do this across multiple sites."

O'Neill agreed that his comments might be viewed as "technical nitpicking" before saying that this also demonstrated only too well "the extent of misunderstanding that is still out there."

Naturally, The Reg sought the views of Google on this matter, which many of its competitors were only too happy to talk about.

A spokeswoman at the internet giant simply said: "Thank you for getting in touch. I’m afraid we’ve no comment on this." ®

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