Google, Microsoft and Mozilla are moving quickly to respond to calls from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and consumer watchdogs for a "do not track" option that allows Web surfers to protect their private information from being exploited by advertising networks. By announcing plug-in software and new anti-tracking features, the major Web browser makers have decided it's in their best interest to offer such options, even if it comes at the expense of some revenue generated by ads that use online behavior data to target consumers.

Users of Google's Chrome Web browser can now download a plug-in called Keep My Opt-Outs, which blocks advertisers from 46 different ad networks, including Google's, and lets people decline personalized, targeted ads. The idea is to offer Chrome users a permanent, one-click control for advertising-related cookies, according to the company's Web site.

This comes as the Consumer Watchdog advocacy organization last week expressed skepticism that Google would embrace a do-not-track mechanism for Chrome. Consumer Watchdog president Jamie Court did, however, blog that changes could be afoot in Google's privacy policies now that co-founder Larry Page is set to step into the CEO position being vacated by Eric Schmidt, who oversaw "one of the largest privacy breaches ever, when Google's street-view cars sucked up private data from Wi-Fi networks in 30 countries around the world."

Mozilla this week proposed a new feature for its Firefox Web browser that allows users to set a browser preference that will broadcast their desire to opt-out of third-party, advertising-based tracking by transmitting a Do Not Track HTTP header with every click or page view in Firefox. "We believe the header-based approach has the potential to be better for the web in the long run because it is a clearer and more universal opt-out mechanism than cookies or blacklists," Alex Fowler, Mozilla's global privacy and public policy leader, blogged earlier this week.

The advantages to the header technique are that it is less complex and simple to locate and use, it is more persistent than cookie-based solutions, and it doesn't rely on users finding and loading lists of ad networks and advertisers to work, according to Fowler, who joined Mozilla two weeks ago. The challenge with adding this to the header is that it requires both browsers and sites to implement it to be fully effective, he acknowledged. Fowler didn't provide a timeframe for when such a feature might be available for Firefox.

Shortly after the FTC issued a preliminary staff report last month suggesting do-not-track as a way to better protect privacy online, Microsoft announced that its upcoming Internet Explorer 9 would feature "Tracking Protection" to help consumers control potential online tracking.

Do-not-track options have been lagging until now, in part, because most companies that make Web browsers are supported by or are themselves online advertising networks. Google, Microsoft and Apple, for example, all have online advertising networks, whereas Mozilla and others get money from Google for search deals, Chris Soghoian, a privacy and security researcher in the School of Informatics and Computing at Indiana University Bloomington, pointed out last month at the "Future of Online Consumer Protections" conference hosted by the Consumer Watchdog advocacy organization in Washington, D.C.

Third-party behavioral advertising accounted for, at most, about 4 percent (less than $1 billion) of 2009 U.S. online advertising expenditures, Jonathan Mayer, a graduate student in computer science and law and computer science at Stanford University, blogged last week on the university's Center for Internet and Society site. Whereas the use of third-party behavioral advertising is rapidly growing, the online advertising market as a whole is growing too—projections place behavioral advertising at only 7 percent of the U.S. online advertising market in 2014, Mayer noted.

Image courtesy of Joe Belanger, via