Online ad companies have been debating for months about how to respond to people’s requests not to be tracked on the Web.
But now a company called Ensighten may just take the decision out of advertising companies’ hands, giving website owners the power to block companies that don’t honor “do not track” requests.
With a new system launching formally this week, the start-up will allow websites to keep a closer eye on tracking tools such as cookies on their site — and even set rules for what trackers to accept.
The idea for the system, dubbed Privacy Sentinel, comes as concern grows about online data collection. The Wall Street Journal reported last year that more Web publishers were trying to rein in the tracking tools on their sites and thatseveral start-ups were stepping in to help them.
The Journal had earlier found that the most popular U.S. websites placed dozens of trackers on average, and many website owners were not aware of the number of tracking tools on their pages.
It’s common for website developers to have deals with several companies to run ads on their site. Each of those companies can in turn make deals with multiple other tracking firms to embed trackers within ads. A study last year by start-up Krux Digital found that nearly a third of the tracking tools on 50 popular sites were installed by companies that didn’t have the publisher’s permission.
“If you’re a large site owner, how do you control all of that?” said Josh Manion, the chief executive of Ensighten.
Founded in 2009, Ensighten is one of several companies that offer a system to help websites manage data-collection tools. Its new product expands on that by letting Web developers funnel traffic to and from tracking companies through the Privacy Sentinel system. That way, the Website owner can see and control just what trackers are on the site, even if those trackers are placed within ads from other companies.
- A diagram showing how Privacy Sentinel works by allowing some data to pass through and blocking other data.
One of the key rules that website owners can set: whether to accept trackers if a person’s browser is set to “do not track.”
Internet Explorer, Firefox and Safari now let users automatically send a message to sites indicating that they don’t want online behavior recorded as they surf the Web. But a major problem with the “do not track” system is that it requires tracking companies to abide by the request, and relatively few ad companies are doing so at this point.
Mozilla, which began including “do not track” controls in its Firefox Web browser earlier this year, said at least a half dozen companies – including Bluekai, Bluecava, Chitika, Media6Degrees and EffectiveMeasure – are honoring the requests. But that is a drop in the bucket when it comes to the online advertising ecosystem.
“Many advertisers and publishers have also announced their support for Do Not Track,” a Mozilla spokeswoman said, as has the Federal Trade Commission staff. But discussions continue about how it should be implemented.
“For the site owners or publishers, it is a hand-wringing activity,” Manion said. “They have to wait for vendors to upgrade technology,” even if they want to give their users more options when it comes to tracking.
Ensighten has teamed with PrivacyChoice, a firm that provides privacy-consulting services to websites. PrivacyChoice maintains data on the policies of more than 450 online ad companies. The Journal used information from PrivacyChoice as part of its study of trackers last year.
Ensighten has been beta testing its Privacy Sentinel system with six clients over the past few months and will publicly launch this week, Manion said. The tool, which is aimed at large site owners, is priced at $2,000 a month and up, he said.
The company declined to name the clients that had been testing the service, and it’s unclear how publishers will respond, or whether they will find that using such a tool strains their relationship with advertising networks.