Commentary

New W3C Initiative Aims To Define Tracking

The Internet guidelines group World Wide Web Consortium, known as W3C, is launching a new initiative focused on browser-based privacy tools.

"Our task here is to deliver a set of standards that enables individuals to express their preferences and choices about online tracking, and enables transparency concerning online tracking activities for users and the public alike," the organization said in a blog post about the project.

Aleecia McDonald, senior privacy researcher at Mozilla (formerly with Carnegie Mellon), will co-chair the new Tracking Protection Working Group, which will convene in two weeks. The other co-chair hasn't yet been announced.

The top of the agenda includes coming up with definitions of key terms -- including "do not track," "first party," "third party" and the like, McDonald tells MediaPost.

While everyone from industry executives to the Federal Trade Commission to the mainstream media seems to use the phrase "do not track," there is significant disagreement over the meaning of the term. Earlier this year, Wendy Seltzer, a fellow at Princeton's Center for Information Technology Policy, proposed several different interpretations: "Is it following a user across multiple sites or multiple sessions, or does it include watching repeat intra-session visits to the same website?" she asked in written comments submitted to W3C earlier this year. "Is it correlating browsing behavior with personally identifying information gained from user input or environment?"

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Currently, Mozilla and Microsoft offer browser-based no-tracking tools, but they work very differently. Mozilla's Firefox has a new do-not-track header that, when activated, communicates broadly that users don't want information about them collected. But the feature doesn't actually block outside companies from gathering data.

Microsoft, meanwhile, recently rolled out tracking protection lists, which allows users to create lists of servers to block or allow. When ad networks appear on users' blacklists, IE9 prevents those entities from appearing as third parties on publishers' sites. The feature only blocks third parties, meaning that the browser will not prevent publishers from serving their own ads, but could prevent ads powered by an outside company from appearing.

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