December 20, 2010

Firefox Browser To Get Online Stealth Mode In 2011

As concerns grow about online privacy, Mozilla is promising it will allow users of its FireFox Web browser to cloak Internet activity with free software upgrades being released early next year.

"Technology that supports something like a 'Do Not Track' button is needed and we will deliver in the first part of next year," Mozilla CEO Gary Kovacs told AFP at Mozilla headquarters in Mountain View, California.

He added that users need "to be in control."

Kovacs said there is a disturbing imbalance between what websites need to know about visitors to personalize services or ads and the amount of data actually collected.

"It is not that ads are bad," he said, but rather what companies "do with my tracked behavior."

"Where I go on the Internet is how I live my life; that is a lot of data to hold just for someone to serve me ads," said Kovacs.

Microsoft unveiled increased privacy options for its latest Web browser, Internet Explorer 9 (IE9), this month that includes a feature "to help keep third-party websites from tracking" users' Web behavior.

The new feature, called "Tracking Protection," will be built into a test version of IE9 due out in early 2011. Users of the browser will have to activate the feature and create lists of websites that they do not want to track their behavior.

Google, which added features to its Chrome Web browser in recent weeks and is testing a notebook computer that operates on the Web browser software, cautioned that the mechanics and ramifications of stealth browsing need to be studied carefully.

"The idea of 'Do Not Track' is interesting, but there doesn't seem to be consensus on what 'tracking' really means, nor how new proposals could be implemented in a way that respects people's current privacy controls," Google told AFP.

"We look forward to ongoing dialogue about what 'Do Not Track' could look like, and in the meantime we are always looking into new tools to give people more transparency and control over their online privacy," it said.

Kovacs acknowledged that the issue is complicated , with interests that include advertisers paying for services or content offered free online.

Supporters of targeted online ads argue that Internet users benefit from having their Web behavior tracked, which gives them tailored searches.

Mozilla believes perils to privacy online are urgent enough to warrant building stealth into the upcoming version of its software, which boasts about 400 million users worldwide.

"I fundamentally believe that the balance is tipped too far," Kovacs said of tracking Web users.

"You can't tell me the delivery of a piece of content is going to be that much better if you know everything about my life; it's all about moderation," he said.

Mozilla touts itself as the people's alternative, only now the battlefield also includes Google as both a supporter and a rival.

"Google is a great partner; it is one of those things where we cooperate and compete," Kovacs said. "When we get together we are either hugging or hitting, it depends on the day."

Mozilla doesn't feel that the Chrome Web browser is truly an open browser despite being free. Nor is Mozilla convinced that the search giant will sacrifice its business interests when it comes to money to be made off user behaviors.

Chrome seems to be tied to their "commercial purposes," said Kovacs. "As the Web grows in importance in our lives, having all that data sit with one vendor that is not truly cross platform and not truly cross device is an alarming thing."

The Federal Trade Commission released a staff report earlier this month that proposes safeguards in browsers for people who want their online activities unrecorded by sites they visit. The report said industry efforts to address privacy through self-regulation "have been too slow, and up to now have failed to provide adequate and meaningful protection."

Democratic Senator John Kerry said: "The report confirms that many companies -- both online and offline -- don't do enough to protect consumer privacy."


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