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25 January 2011, 11:51

Google releases data protection extension

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Google Chrome Logo Online advertising networks frequently use cookies in order to recognise internet users (or more precisely their browsers). Over time, this allows them to collect more and more information on users from the web sites and web pages they visit. The profiles compiled can be used to serve precisely tailored advertising.

Behavioural targeting and other such techniques are controversial, for which reason many advertising networks offer the option of opting out of such tracking. Users can opt out of nearly 50 networks on the Network Advertising Initiative website. From a technical point of view, this opt out is realised via yet another – in this case anonymous – cookie, which tells organisations running advertising networks that a user does not wish to be tracked.

This method hits the buffers, however, when a user deletes all his or her cookies, as in doing so he or she also deletes any opt-out cookies. Consequently, advertisers are no longer aware that the user wishes to opt out and recommence tracking. A new Chrome extension from Google by the name of Keep My Opt-Outs is designed to tackle this problem. It permanently stops personalised advertising from all online advertising networks which adhere to the advertising industry's own regulations – including Google itself. Google is planning to open source the code for the extension and provide a similar extension for other browsers.

It's no accident that Google has released this one day after Mozilla staff had published musings over support for an alternative data protection standard for advertising networks. The Do Not Track approach favoured by Mozilla and the US Federal Trade Commission relies on browsers indicating their opt-out preference via a special http header. Supporting this would, however, require a lot of work on the part of the advertising industry. With this in mind, online advertisers appear to have decided to offer their own browser-side solution.

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