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Earlier this year, Mozilla added a new feature to Firefox: do not track (DNT) functionality.

When enabled, the Firefox browser includes an HTTP header intended for advertisers and publishers that indicates the user does not want to be tracked.

Many, myself included, were skeptical about the potential efficacy of DNT, but how's it doing thus far?

In a blog post last week, Mozilla's Anurag Phadke revealed that, based on Mozilla's analysis, "just under 5% of our users with DNT turned on within Firefox".

In reality, the number may be slightly higher, as Mozilla's method of counting DNT usage is likely to underestimate the number of users who have activated the feature.

As I have noted before, DNT's fatal flaw is that it relies on advertisers and publishers to respect the DNT HTTP header. For obvious reasons, they have little incentive to do so.

Even if one assumes that advertisers and publishers have the utmost respect for user privacy, DNT has the potential to upset the unspoken compact between individuals and publishers: you give me your content, and I'll tolerate your ads.

If advertisers lose the ability to learn more about the individuals who are perusing the sites on which their ads are displayed, digital ad inventory arguably becomes far less valuable, and advertisers have every incentive to pay less for it, harming the publishers who supply their content at no cost to those who consume it.

None of this, of course, is really Mozilla's problem. But Mozilla does have a problem: enabling DNT is currently a fruitless exercise as Firefox users with DNT enabled have no way of knowing whether any given site is respecting their wishes.

Currently, some 5% (give or take) of Firefox users are telling advertisers and publishers that they don't want to be tracked, but few if any of those advertisers and publishers are listening.

Needless to say, some of the users who have enabled DNT but don't quite understand how it actually works would probably be disappointed to learn that the vast majority of the time, they're still being tracked.

So what should Mozilla do?

Barring unworkable, unenforceable government mandates that advertisers and publishers respect the DNT HTTP header, I think it's safe to say that 'solutions' like Mozilla's are simply not going to be effective.

After all, any amount of DNT user adoption without significant advertiser and publisher adoption fails to address the fundamental concerns that led to it in the first place, and renders DNT little more than a safety blanket that provides no safety.

If the privacy concerns that led to DNT are ever to be effectively addressed, more realistic approaches that don't ignore the economics of digital content will need to be developed.

Patricio Robles

Published 12 September, 2011 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

2391 more posts from this author

Comments (2)

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Bill Marshall

What is your opinion of the Ghostery plugin for Firefox? It certainly talks a good game and I've been using it for a while with no problems, but just how good it is is difficult to tell. Probably a lot better than DNT at any rate.

almost 5 years ago

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John Smith

Actually 5% isn't a number that would dramatically impact the industry. Currently 3rd party cookie blocking is in the area of 15%, with overnight deletion in the same ball park. Add to this advertising blocking of 2-8% (3rd party apps or plugins or TPLs which actually block the HTTP connection) and opt out cookie rates of a small but contributing .25%, and you realize that the 5% (even if it was respected) is the least of the problems.

Your general analysis however is spot on. Advertisers buy ads, which fund content. The rise of paywalls is pretty clear indication that even the current balance isn't in its current form enough to sustain the ad only supported model. If either the actual value to advertisers, or even their ability to measure value, decreases so will their spend. Less spend means less content funding. Less content funding means either more paywalls or less content. The math here isn't all that complicated.

There is lots of work to be done here on both sides. Consumers should realize this isn't a free lunch and advertisers/publishers need to do a much better job of communicating the real value exchange so that consumers can make an informed decision.

almost 5 years ago

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