Ad Industry Urges Web Standards Group To Abandon Do-Not-Track Effort

The ad trade group Digital Advertising Alliance is urging the World Wide Web Consortium to pull the plug on its tracking-protection initiative, which aims to implement the do-not-track requests that users can send through their browsers.

“By wading into this public-policy matter, the W3C not only duplicates efforts undertaken by legitimate policymakers but also strays far beyond its expertise and mission,” DAA executive director Lou Mastria wrote to the W3C on Wednesday. He added that the DAA wants the Internet standards organization “to abandon this effort and to return to its mission of developing consensus around specifications for web technologies.”

Mastria's remarks come in response to the W3C's call for comments to its proposed definition of “tracking.”

Earlier this year, the organization tentatively decided that a “do not track” request will communicate that users don't want data about themselves collected by ad networks or other third parties. That definition doesn't affect the collection of data by first parties, like Amazon or The New York Times, according to Justin Brookman, who co-chairs the W3C's tracking protection group.

All of the major browser companies now offer a do-not-track setting, which was designed to enable consumers to opt out of online behavioral advertising -- or ads based on people's Web-surfing history. But those headers don't actually prevent companies from collecting data about users as they navigate the Web. Instead, the headers send a signal to publishers and ad networks -- which are free to decide how to respond to them.

Privacy advocates, industry representatives and computer scientists on the W3C's do-not-track group have spent the last three years trying to figure out how to interpret the signals. The effort has been marked by controversy and in-fighting, resulting in defections by high-profile members, including the DAA. (Even though the trade group no longer participates, it was free to submit comments about the proposed do-not-track definition.)

Mastria wasn't the only industry representative to weigh in on the matter. Other commenters took issue with the proposed definition of “tracking,” with several arguing that it gives large first-party publishers -- like Amazon -- an unfair advantage.

Max P. Ochoa, general counsel and chief privacy officer at the demand side platform Turn, said the proposed definition of tracking will result in “a dramatic concentration of market power in the hands of first parties that have shown themselves willing to collude to manipulate markets and are historically poor stewards of privacy.”

He pointed out that some first parties -- including Google and Facebook, although Ochoa didn't name them specifically -- were the subject of Federal Trade Commission enforcement actions alleging breaches of their privacy policies.

“We are the good guys,” he writes, adding that Turn and other ad networks and third parties don't draw on consumers' “personally identifiable information” -- meaning their names, addresses, telephone numbers and the like.

Some industry representatives also took the position that the whole concept of a browser-based header is flawed, given that browser developers and software companies can configure users' computers to activate do-not-track by default. Microsoft, for one, now turns on the do-not-track signal automatically for some Internet Explorer users.

The ad industry says that do-not-track signals set by default don't reflect a user's preference to avoid tracking across Web sites. But the industry also says there's no good way to distinguish between a signal set by a user and one set by a developer

“There’s no mechanism for anyone in the digital media ecosystem to trust any DNT signal they receive,” industry consultant Alan Chapell said in a post to the group. “As a result, the entire framework is open to question. In any other group, this issue would result in a full stop until the questions are addressed.”

Mike Zaneis, general counsel at the Interactive Advertising Bureau, added that companies could activate the signal in order “to be seen as 'competing on privacy.' "

Brookman says that he and the other chairs are meeting on Wednesday to discuss the feedback.

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1 comment about "Ad Industry Urges Web Standards Group To Abandon Do-Not-Track Effort".
  1. Blair Reeves from IBM , June 20, 2014 at 3:15 p.m.
    This is completely unsurprising. "Tracking" is not a technological issue one way or the other - it's a policy one, and the stakeholders in the W3C group are completely incapable of coming to any mutually acceptable compromise. The reason is because there is no clear reason for them to do so. I wrote a blog post a while back about this, and how Do Not Track was bound to fail, because no one has a real interest in cooperating: www.bullishdata.com/2014/03/05/online-ads-batnas-and-the-failure-of-do-not-track/