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Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Do Not Track Plus add-on stops the tracking paparazzi Dispatch for Windows

Seth Rosenblatt

If ad-blocking is the hacksaw of Internet-protecting add-ons, the overhauled add-on Do Not Track Plus bows today as a finely honed scalpel, excising tracking behaviors embedded in sites without destroying the modern Web.

Released exclusively through CNET, Do Not Track Plus 2.0.4 follows last year's beta release with a greatly expanded feature set, better performance, and is available on four of the five major browsers. You can download Do Not Track Plus for Firefox (Windows | Mac),Chrome (Windows | Mac), Internet Explorer (Windows only), and Safari (Windows | Mac).

The intent of the free add-on is as much to educate as it is to protect, explained Bill Kerrigan, CEO of Abine, which makes Do Not Track Plus (DNT+). "We want to help people understand what's happening when they're tracked, and give them a sense of control over the Internet that doesn't impact their experience," he told CNET yesterday.

DNT+ blocks sites and ads from tracking you, unless you give them explicit permission to do so. For most sites, it actually rebuilds tools like social-networking buttons on the fly so you can still get your social on without sacrificing privacy or site load times. It also blocks ad networks and companies from following you around the Web.

Do Not Track Plus protects your privacy as you bop around the Web, and lets you toggle those protections on the fly.

Do Not Track Plus protects your privacy as you bop around the Web, and lets you toggle those protections on the fly.

(Credit: Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET)

"We want to stop people from being beholden to advertisers," said CTO Andy Sudbury, but he cautioned that there's more to it than that. "The main idea here is building privacy tools for everyday users. We want to be enabling technology, rather than an experience at the expense of functionality."

Unlike with traditional ad-blockers or JavaScript blockers, Abine's chiefs argue that their add-on will let you experience the Web as it's currently intended by site developers. You're just not sacrificing your privacy on the altar of the Internet-powered data-scraping machine, goes the logic.

DNT+ installs as a browser toolbar button. The icon reflects the number of tracking blocks against the site you're viewing. Click the button and a drop-down window appears with trackers separated into three categories: social buttons, ad networks, and companies. If there's something marked "verbotten" that you want back, like a Twitter button, clicking it will resurrect it.

The add-on also has links back to Abine's sites that explain how it works, so that there's some daylight shed on how it operates. The social button rebuild is effective because it prevents the buttons from tracking you until you click on them. This is important because social buttons will phone home every time you load a page with them on it, whether or not you've actually shared the site to a specific social network.

You can turn off Do Not Track Plus without disabling the add-on.

You can turn off Do Not Track Plus without disabling the add-on.

(Credit: Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET)

The add-on also links to an explanation from Abine of what opting out of ad-tracking is and what the consequences of opting out are. Where blocking prevents the ads from appearing outright, that has potentially harmful consequences for site operations. DNT+'s opt out installs anti-tracking cookies that allows ads to continue to be served, but prevents them from following you.

If you're curious about which companies are tracking you, clicking that section of the add-on reveals the real names of targeted advertisers. The explanation there helps you identify those companies.

Some sites, said Sudbury, load the social buttons differently from most, a customization that prevents the buttons from being re-rendered properly. While Abine's CEO and CTO clearly felt that this wasn't enough of a problem to keep the company from releasing the add-on, they did admit that this was a problem that would be fixed in the coming months.

DNT+ can be toggled on or off very quickly, without having to disable the add-on, via a power button icon that appears in the upper-left corner of the drop-down window.

The add-on appears on your browser's toolbar as a button and counter, which reveals the number of ad trackers it's blocked.

(Credit: Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET)

As noted above, if you're a friending social addict, Plus-oneing, Facebooking, and Twittering everything in sight, there's a chance that the social networking button disruption on a few big sites could induce a rage seizure. I lost some social networking functionality on a few major sites because of the add-on. Most of these came back when I re-activated those specific social buttons in the add-on. In general, though, I experienced very little loss of "modern-Web" functionality. Certainly, I didn't miss the motorcycle glove ads that have been following me around the Web for the past four months, and that's even with the W3C-standard Do Not Track header enabled.

The Do Not Track header from which DNT+ derives its name is an HTML header that broadcasts a warning to ad networks not to follow you as you bop from site to site. The problem with it is that while it may have approval from the W3C and most browser vendors, the only enforcement mechanism is the honor system.

Sudbury noted that DNT+ broadcasts the standard DNT header, but doesn't rely on it because the header lacks "enforcement on the FTC level."

Internet Explorer may strike some as a curious candidate for DNT+ because of its built-inTracking Protection List, but Sudbury explained that the TPL is no different than an ad-blocker. "It's great that [Microsoft] put that in as an option, but the TPL is a crude protection mechanism. We block tracking without blocking experience," he said.

He added that Abine was one of Microsoft's original partner providers for the TPL feature, and continues to be one.

Going forward, Kerrigan says that Abine plans to improve how the add-on interacts with the occasional social networking instances that still give it problems. Abine also plans to release a suite release a suite of products, many based on a freemium model for its privacy-enhancing tools. The company is also looking at releasing mobile versions of DNT+, as well as an Opera browser add-on. One of the potential complications in developing a mobile version of a tracking blocker will be getting approval from the operating system makers, which derive revenue from those same mobile ads.

Kerrigan concluded, "From identity theft to the loss of employment, the consequences of consumer inertia on privacy are real."