That "Do Not Track" Setting on Your Browser Means Nothing

/ data privacy, web browsers

Most browsers have the "Do Not Track" feature in their settings. You might have this setting enabled or you might not.

But what does "Do Not Track" really do? Does it do what the name implies? Does it matter if it is even enabled or not? You might be shocked at the answers...

What is "Do Not Track?"

The "Do Not Track" is a setting found in web browsers. When enabled, the "Do Not Track" setting sends a special request to various web applications to stop tracking your activity.

greyed out web browser

"Do Not Track" was a standard originally proposed in 2009 by researchers and developers who were concerned about users' online privacy.

In early 2019, the official channels for the "Do Not Track" standard were largely abandoned, but the setting is still present in most web browsers across mobile and desktop.

Most browsers allow "Do Not Track" to be toggled off and on from within its settings menu.

"Do Not Track" is only a request

Enabling "Do Not Track" is only a request.

That signal to "not track your activity" being sent to different web applications such as websites, ad networks, and analytics companies is not a guarantee.

This means that when you have "Do Not Track" enabled, you're still being tracked in a lot of cases.

"Do Not Track" is voluntary for all parties:

  • You can choose whether to broadcast the signal to not track your activity to websites
  • Websites (again, including ad networks, analytics companies, etc) can choose whether to honor your request

In nearly any combination above, the most likely outcome is: you're still being tracked across the web.

Enabling or disabling "Do Not Track"

"Do Not Track" doesn't have the benefit of disabling trackers in the way that you might want, but you may want to enable it to check another box.

Some websites and advertisers will respect it, so you may want to disable it to receive more "focused" advertising.

In any case, here's how to disable or enable "Do Not Track" for commonly used browsers:

Safari doesn't have the "Do Not Track" setting; it was removed with the release of Safari 12 .

Plenty of websites don't honor "Do Not Track"

Websites, ad networks, and analytics companies can simply ignore the "Do Not Track" signal put out by your web browser.

Many places do choose to just that, unfortunately. The number of websites and other web applications that ignore this request is too high to truly create a comprehensive list.

black phone and no track

It's important to understand that not just obscure, dubious, or lesser known websites ignore your request to not track you across the web. There are plenty of well-known websites that ignore the signal as well.

Some of these more well-known places include:

  • Google
  • Facebook

No legal basis for "Do Not Track"

There is no consensus how companies should handle a Do Not Track request.

Here's an example of what I mean:

Let's say you are visiting Website A. Your browser has "Do Not Track" enabled.

Website A receives this request. Website A chooses to honor the request; any cookies or snippets of code coming directly from Website A do not track your activity once you leave the website.

However, Website A displays advertisements from Ad Network B.

Ad Network B uses trackers in the advertisements they place on websites. These trackers ignore your browser's "Do Not Track" signal.

Ad Network B can then track your activity when you leave and serve you more targeted ads the next time you visit Website A.

Ad Network B is a third-party, separate from Website A. Each handled your "Do Not Track" differently, hence the lack of consensus for responses to "Do Not Track" across different websites and companies.

There's also the fact that there is a lack of legislation for enforcing "Do Not Track."

There were several attempts made to create uniform legal and enforceable standards for the "Do Not Track" standard.

At the end of 2010, the FTC issued a report that called for a "do not track system." Microsoft and Mozilla announced support for tracking protection in 2011.

In mid-2015, privacy groups pushed for "Do Not Track" to be a standard that businesses follow at a bare minimum.

Everything kind of fell apart in 2019, unfortunately.

Unlike the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR or "the cookies law") passed by the European Union, there is no law to fall back on when "Do Not Track" requests are not honored.

When there is a violation of the GDPR, companies and website owners can be fined substantial amounts of money and forced to comply, else face harsher (read: more expensive) fines.

This is not the case for the now defunct Do Not Track standard. Therefore, there are no true repercussions for ignoring a "Do Not Track" request.

How do you really stop tracking?

Is there any way to stop tracking?

Completely stopping trackers from doing their thing is exceptionally hard. But when it comes to minimizing tracking as much as possible, you do have a number of options.

white computer blue background

Use a privacy-oriented browser

There are web browsers available out there that put privacy (and security!) at the forefront of their functions.

Most of these web browsers have more advanced security settings when compared to more mainstream browsers such as Google Chrome.

For example, a lot of these more privacy conscious browsers have deliberate mechanisms for blocking most trackers enabled as defaults. These defaults tend to be more aggressive than your more mainstream browsers as well.

Utilize privacy add-ons

You don't always have to ditch your beloved mainstream browser to gain some privacy while browsing the net.

Browsers with lots of users, such as Firefox and Google Chrome, often come with the ability to install "add-ons" and "extensions." Fortunately, there are many privacy and security related add-ons out to be downloaded and installed.

Obviously, some work better than others.

Additionally, in many cases, you're going to have install multiple different extensions and configure the regular browser privacy settings to get the maximum protection available.

This can require numerous tweaks and test-runs before you get the desired privacy and functionality.

Some worthy extensions include No Script and Ghostery. Both block trackers much more effectively than standard browser functions.

Block tracking techniques

You can block trackers and various tracking techniques by both installing a privacy browser and configuring the browser to use privacy friendly plugins (add-ons or extensions), as described above.

You can block trackers at the browser/device level and/or the network level.

Blocking trackers directly, versus relying on a deprecated system such as DNT, helps you maintain some privacy on the internet.

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