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Twitter opts in to ‘Do Not Track’ privacy initiative

By Charles Arthur, The Guardian
Friday, May 18, 2012 12:17 EDT
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Twitter says it will honour requests from users who do not want their online behaviour tracked, the company said on Thursday, in contrast with web companies such Google and Facebook whose business models rely heavily on collecting user data.

Twitter announced that it will officially support “Do Not Track,” a standardised privacy initiative that has been heavily promoted by the US Federal Trade Commission, online privacy advocates and Mozilla, the non-profit developer of the Firefox web browser.

But some commentators have pointed out that the support also indicates that the company presently does track where users go on the web through data collected from sites that have integrated Twitter “follow” buttons or widgets.

Dustin Curtis, a web developer, pointed out that a posting on theTwitter blog on Thursday says that “We receive visit information when sites have integrated Twitter buttons or widgets, similar to what many other web companies – including LinkedIn, Facebook and YouTube – do when they’re integrated into websites. By recognising which accounts are frequently followed by people who visit popular sites, we can recommend those accounts to others who have visited those sites within the last 10 days.”

Curtis commented: “Twitter is recording your behaviour. It is transparently watching your movements and storing them somewhere for later use. Right now, that data will make better suggestions for accounts you might want to follow. But what other things can it be used for?”

However the adoption of the Do Not Track system could alleviate those fears. Some browsers, including Firefox, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer and Apple’s Safari, include a Do Not Track option that sends a line of code to websites indicating the user does not want to be tracked. But under current regulations, it is up to the website to honour the requests. Google has said it will implement a Do Not Track feature in its Chrome browser later this year.

The Do Not Track announcement also coincides with Twitter’s recent push to provide a more personalised service. Twitter says that when it recommends “tailored suggestions” based on a user’s surfing history, it does not use the data for any other purpose.

“As always, we are committed to providing you with simple and meaningful choices about the information we collect to improve your Twitter experience,” Twitter’s director of growth and international, Othman Laraki, said in the blogpost. “For those who don’t want to tailor Twitter, we offer ways to turn off this collection.”

Twitter’s support for the initiative was first announced on Thursday by Ed Felten, the FTC’s chief technology officer, during a panel in New York. The microblogging site later confirmed Felten’s statement, adding in a tweet: “We applaud the FTC’s leadership on DNT.”

Mozilla praised Twitter’s move in a blogpost and noted that adoption rates for Do Not Track have risen steadily, to 8.6% of desktop users and 19% of mobile users.

“We’re excited that Twitter now supports Do Not Track and global user adoption rates continue to increase, which signifies a big step forward for Do Not Track and the web,” Mozilla said.

Twitter’s decision to get onboard with Do Not Track represents something of a balancing act for the six-year-old company, which has been closely scrutinised on how it can generate enough revenue to justify its multibillion-dollar valuation.

Online tracking through bits of code embedded in websites known as “cookies” underpins the business models for many internet companies.

Facebook, due to go public on Friday in the largest-ever US IPO, has been valued at $104bn, partially by investors who believe it can offer advertisers a platform for highly targeted ads based on perceived user interests. Google similarly generates billions annually by targeting ads based on what a user is searching for.

Major online destinations that have endorsed Do Not Track include Yahoo, which said in March it would allow consumers “to express their ad targeting preferences to Yahoo” beginning this summer.

© Guardian News and Media 2012

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