New Tool Prevents Web Advertisers From Tracking You

Dennis Faas's picture

Stanford University is working on a new tool that will help Internet users stop advertisers from tracking their online activity. But efforts to produce an industry-wide solution remain bogged down in negotiations.

The issue revolves around 'cookies,' small text files that are created by a website and stored on a user's computer. Later, they're used as reference information when a user re-visits a site.

Cookies can be very helpful. For example, if you type your zip code into a movie listing website, the site will often create a cookie. The next time you visit that site you'll get local listings automatically without needing to re-enter your zip code details.

However, there's increasing controversy over third-party cookies. In this case, when you visit a web page an advertiser creates a cookie that tracks the other sites you visit.

The next time you visit a page with an advertisement from the same advertiser, the cookie will allow for more personally targeted ads based on the types of sites you visit.

Cookie Clearinghouse Would List 'Bad' Cookies

Many privacy-focused organizations have been trying to find ways to make it easier to block unwanted third-party cookies. Stanford is setting up a "Cookie Clearinghouse," which will list recommendations for which cookies browsers should and shouldn't show. (Source:

The people behind the project say they will develop a set of objective standards to decide which cookies go on the list. They've already suggested third-party cookies -- those that aren't created by the website the user intended to visit -- might automatically go on a 'block list'.

The long-term idea is that users can add special tools to their browsers that will automatically check each cookie against the block list. Mozilla, producer of the Firefox browser, has already said it is interested in distributing such a tool.

'Do Not Track' Debate Rages On

The industry continues to struggle to develop a universal solution. There's an effort to create a standard tool in all web browsers that would allow users to issue a "Do Not Track" instruction signalling the user doesn't want third-party tracking cookies.

The problem is that technical limitations mean the "Do Not Track" signal would only be a request and couldn't physically block the cookies. Advertisers have said they'll consider adopting a policy of respecting these signals, but want the system to be watered down. (Source:

In particular, they want "Do Not Track" to be an opt-in system, meaning it won't be switched on by default and will rely on users actively changing their browser settings.

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