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Today, the administration of US President Barack Obama announced a blueprint for a "Privacy Bill of Rights."
The goal: "improve consumers’ privacy protections" and "give users more control over how their personal information is used on the Internet", all the while maintaining the internet's status as an "engine for innovation and economic growth."
To achieve that goal, the president has enlisted the help of some of the internet's biggest names, including Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and AOL.
According to the administration, the firms have agreed to respect a Do Not Track header that users will soon (apparently) be able to send by enabling a Do Not Track setting in major browsers. "Companies that make this commitment will be subject to FTC enforcement," The White House's press release warns.
So does this mean that Do Not Track is isn't useless after all? The answer: not necessarily. Companies like Google have committed to something, but the devil is in the details, and details are still quite scant. As is always the case, the rules and the rules that get enforced are two different things. It's worth noting that in many cases, new regulation schemes that the regulated voluntarily consent to conveniently come with ample loopholes built-in. In this case, there are already some we know of, for market research, product development and, of course, law enforcement.
Finally, it's worth remembering that very few Mozilla users have enabled that browser's Do Not Track feature, something you can be sure Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and AOL kept in mind when they made their agreement.
Even assuming, however, that Google et. al. are sincere in curtailing who and what they track when instructed, Do Not Track is still largely a red herring for consumers. It helps that some of the largest firms on the web are agreeing to respect Do Not Track, but consumers still have no way of knowing what information is being collected by whom when they travel from site to site. Unscrupulous players (the kind consumers should really worry about) don't care about the Privacy Bill of Rights, and it won't affect perhaps the greatest legitimate privacy killer: Facebook. As The Wall Street Journal notes, Do Not Track doesn't, for instance, impact Facebook's ability to track its users as they traverse the web using those ubiquitous 'Like' buttons.
The reality is that consumers can't rely on a Privacy Bill of Rights to defend their privacy. And they don't need to. Instead of asking the government to more tightly regulate the internet, which, incidentally, invites more nonsense like SOPA and ACTA, consumers should simply chose who they do business with on the web.
At the end of the day, if you're dumping every piece of personal information onto Facebook, Twitter, etc., as so many are, it's worth remembering that the really creepy privacy implications aren't a result of your browsing habits; they're a result of the information you've volunteered which can be associated with them.