What is “Do Not Track”?

Are you happy for organisations to be logging which websites you visit?

You might assume that if you visit one website and then a completely different (and seemingly unrelated) one, there is no connection between the two and that neither of them would know about your visit to the other.

Homburg and binocularsAfter all, if you walked into one shop and then another, it would never cross your mind that your movements were being tracked. If you thought about it at length then it wouldn’t be difficult to work out that marketing people at John Lewis could tell if you’d bought something at Peter Jones in Sloane Square and then gone to Oxford Street and bought something at John Lewis. If you use the same credit card in both stores then they could work it out as they are the same company. If you didn’t want them to make the connection then you could have paid in cash.

Suppose, though, that you’ve merely walked in and out of HMV in Oxford Street (without even buying anything), and then yomped off to Muji in Whiteleys. You wouldn’t expect them to know in Muji that you’d just been in HMV (as far as I know they wouldn’t, so let’s not go overboard with the paranoia).

But that can happen in cyberspace. If a piece of software on one website has recorded your visit (on your own computer!), then a different website can access that information if the same software is installed on the second website as well as the first. The information is stored on your own computer in a small file called a “cookie”. I congratulate the inventor of that word for a magnificent piece of doublespeak. The word “cookie” conjures up ideas of pleasure, treats, sugar hits. The reality, though, is that a cookie is simply a text file containing information about a visit to a website.

Anyway, there is a growing unease about the way that far more information is being recorded about our web habits than we are aware of. This is why the EU introduced the badly-thought out “Cookie Law“.

Apart from the Cookie Law, a method is now being built into web browsers (Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome, Safari, etc) whereby we can state our wishes as to whether websites track our activity in this way. The theory is that this preference is then sent by the browser back to the website that we are visiting and that the website then behaves accordingly. This expression of preference is being called “Do Not Track”.

There are, however, a few rather nasty big flies in the ointment:

  • There is no agreement as to what “tracking” means.
  • Most websites don’t take any notice of the stated preference.
  • There is no rule or law that forces the website to take any notice.


The possible definitions of “tracking” could, for instance, embrace these ideas:

  • Do not track what I do on a website that can provide information for targeting me with advertising (eg I’m male, interested in books, and live in London).
  • Do not track the different sites that I visit (as this could allow inferences to be made about my behaviour, preferences etc).
  • Do not even track my movements within one site (eg which pages did I visit, in what order, and how long did I spend on each page).

BloodhoundThe World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is currently thrashing out the details of a standard agreement as to what tracking actually means. When that has been finalised there is likely to be legislation requiring websites to conform to the tracking preferences of website visitors.

At the moment, though, even if you are using a browser that enables you to set a preference for DNT (“do not track”) then it’s probably not switched on. In the next version of Internet Explorer (version 10) it will be switched on by default.

In other browsers:

  • If you are running IE8 with Vista or Windows 7 then it’s a good idea to upgrade to IE9. That option is not available if you are running Windows XP. IE8 does not support DNT.
  • To turn on DNT in the latest version of Firefox, go to Options, Privacy pane, and tick the box as illustrated.
  • Chrome doesn’t currently offer DNT.
  • In Safari, open Preferences, then Privacy, then tick the box next to “Ask websites not to track me”.
Firefox "Do Not Track" Control
The “Do Not Track” setting in Firefox

Despite all the shortcomings listed above, it wouldn’t do any harm to set your preference if you don’t want to be tracked.

(Last updated 08/09/2023)