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18 May 2012, 14:26

Twitter refines tracking, adds Do Not Track support

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Fuel has been added to the fire of the debate over the technical implementation of default privacy settings as Twitter becomes the first large web company to declare support for the Do Not Track concept. During an event organized by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which is responsible for consumer data protection in the US and also supports Do Not Track, the agency's chief technologist Ed Felten introduced Twitter as a new proponent. Not much later, Twitter announced that it had started testing new ways of its own for looking over its own users' shoulders.

Do Not Track (DNT) is based on the idea that users can decide how service providers handle their personal data via changes through to their browser settings. Headers set by the user specify how service providers and related third parties, such as advertisers, record and evaluate browsing behaviour. This is supposed to give users control over their privacy online without JavaScript, cookies and Flash needing to be completely turned off.

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) has not yet made a final decision on common standards for implementing Do Not Track. One of the loudest voices calling for a solution is the Mozilla Foundation, developer of the Firefox browser. Firefox users can already turn on Do Not Track by going to the Privacy tab in the Preferences menu and placing a checkmark in the box labeled "tell websites I do not want to be tracked". Internet Explorer has a similar option, while Google's Chrome browser supports DNT only through an external plugin.

Since Google and Microsoft are not only browser vendors but also provide advertising services, both companies have a vested interest in representing the needs of advertisers. This might explain why their enthusiasm for privacy-related options is considered by some to be somewhat lacking. Some participants at the FTC conference have mentioned that advertising service providers in particular constantly try to water down what start out as strict standards in the W3C. The W3C's DNT recommendations are currently scheduled for October 2012, but Twitter seems to be losing no time with its DNT implementation. Just a few hours after its support was announced, the site rolled out an opt-out cookie called DNT.

Almost simultaneously with its Do Not Track support, Twitter announced that it was ramping up its "tailored suggestions" for some of its users. The idea behind the new system is to use a user's browsing behaviour to help the platform's recommendation mechanism suggest accounts that the user may find interesting. Users can opt out of this service, however, by disabling the feature in their user account settings. Their browser's DNT settings will also be respected.

(Falk Lüke / fab)

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