The concept behind do-not-track was simple enough. It grew from the basic idea that consumers should have a simple way to permanently opt out of online behavioral targeting. To that end, all the browser manufacturers are offering (or will soon offer) a header that, when turned on, sends a do-not-track signal to ad networks and publishers.
But in practice, do-not-track has turned out to be anything but simple, raising questions that don't lend themselves to easy answers.
One of the biggest centers on whether do-not-track should mean do-not-collect, or just do-not-target.
Just about everyone agrees that the ad industry shouldn't serve behaviorally targeted ads -- that is, ads that are selected based on the other Web sites users have visited -- to people who turn on do-not-track. But what about data collection? The ad industry says it needs to gather certain information -- such as data used for market research -- even if people don't want to be "tracked." Privacy advocates say that people who don't want to be tracked don't want any information collected, and that the ad industry should respect that decision.
The W3C's Tracking Protection Working Group -- which is trying to develop standards for implementing do-not-track headers -- apparently has realized that the various factions aren't going to agree on this issue any time soon. After spending months debating these issues, and unsuccessfully trying to forge a consensus, the group's leadership threw up its hands and proclaimed that consensus won't be the goal of the meeting this week in Amsterdam. Instead the new goal, as per the organization's latest agenda, posted today, is to arrive at a conclusion that "raises the least number of objections."
That statement isn't sitting well with the umbrella group Digital Advertising Alliance. Today, the DAA sent leaders of the Internet standards group a letter criticizing the "least number of objections" standard. "This is not an appropriate process or means for moving forward on decisions that could affect the future of an entire online ecosystem," the letter says.
The DAA adds that a "non-consensus decision" by "an organization of unelected individuals who do not represent the interests of all stakeholders, should not be substituted for the consensus judgment of the participants given the impact such a decision could have on consumers, commerce, national and global economies, jobs, and the overall health of the Internet ecosystem."
Beyond questions about the process, the DAA also is asking whether an Internet standards body should be wading into the policy questions that underlie tracking. "The W3C has been designed to build consensus around complex technology issues, not complex public policy matters," its letter states. "For this reason, it is not surprising that W3C has been unable to achieve consensus in this forum. Policymakers, regulators, advocates, and industry representatives have grappled with these types of policy issues for decades and continue to deliberate on these matters."
Of course, the W3C has no power to enforce its recommendations. So while the group might have given up on consensus (for now, anyway), any standards that come out of the meetings won't be all that meaningful unless publishers and ad networks decide to follow them.