The FTC Wants You To Protect Yourself From Online Ad Tracking

"Tracker blocker" tools are free and keep advertisers from following your browsing habits

Illustration: Diana Quach
Jul 08, 2016 at 6:00 AM ET

The U.S. government now agrees with privacy advocates: It’s time to install a plugin to keep advertisers from tracking you as you browse the web.

In a newly updated consumer guide to using the internet, the Federal Trade Commission now recommends people use free “tracker blockers,” like Privacy Badger or Ghostery, which block most of the hidden third-party software buried in web pages that helps advertisers to keep tabs on you and your browsing habits.

“Consumers should be aware of [tracker blockers] to take control of their privacy,” Megan Cox, an attorney at the FTC’s Division of Privacy and Identity Protection, told Vocativ.

Per its own rules, the FTC refuses to endorse specific brands, though nearly any tracker blocker is preferable to none.

The FTC’s choice to recommend tracker blockers is an update from the largely unsuccessful implementation of Do Not Track, a browser setting—you can see if you’re signed up here—that, when enabled, legally requires that site to honor your request to not be tracked from site to site. It’s largely feckless, however: A company’s participation in Do Not Track is entirely voluntary, and per the FTC’s admission, “most tracking companies today have not committed to honoring users’ Do Not Track preferences.”

“These days third party tracking has become nearly ubiquitous on the web and tracker blocking software is an extremely important tool for people to protect their privacy online,” Cooper Quintin, a developer at the Electronic Frontier Foundation who helped develop Privacy Badger, told Vocativ. “We hope that this will send a powerful message to online businesses: Tracking your users is no longer a viable business model.”

In a statement to Vocativ, Dave Grimaldi, an executive Vice President at the Interactive Advertising Bureau, an online advertising industry group, said of the FTC that “we share their desire for consumers to understand the choices they have regarding advertising online,” and called tracker blockers “another option available to consumers in the marketplace.”