Here are the basics of what's being debated and how the new browsers fit in the discussion.
If you've ever looked online for a new car or new shoes, only to notice ads for similar products soon thereafter on unrelated Web sites, you're seeing behavioral tracking at work. It's a widespread practice behind a lot of online marketing, a means of delivering targeted offers at people who have shown an interest in specific products.
Privacy groups, and many consumers, find this sort of tracking a bit too creepy, so they've been calling for controls on behavioral advertising. Enter the Federal Trade Commission, which late last year issued a report proposing "do not track" regulations that would let people choose whether to let Web sites and marketers collect data on their online searching and browsing.
The most likely means of implementing do-not-track would be a setting on browsers. Microsoft's Internet Explorer 9 and Mozilla's upcoming Firefox 4 have features that let users indicate that they don't want to be tracked. The catch is that it's only a request--indicated by an electronic flag that's visible to Web site operators. No advertising networks or marketing firms have said they'll abide by the request, and major ad trade groups say their members aren't sure how to comply. Google Chrome and Apple Safari browsers don't offer the option.
Debate rages, even inside the FTC. J. Thomas Rosch, one of five FTC commissioners, recently wrote in Advertising Age that he has "serious questions" about do-not-track and believes the technical feasibility has "yet to be demonstrated."
Legislation has been proposed by several members of Congress to limit how much information Internet marketing firms collect. For now, though, consumers might be surprised to learn that the do-not-track feature in new browsers lacks teeth. Web sites aren't obligated to honor such requests, so deleting cookies and surf histories is the only sure-fire route to online anonymity.