W3C Faces New Challenge On Do-Not-Track

Seems like even the most basic privacy-related moves by the Internet standards group World Wide Web Consortium are causing controversy these days. The latest example stems from a relatively routine procedural decision to extend the charter of the Tracking Protection Working Group, which is trying to forge a consensus about online tracking and targeting.

Three weeks ago, the W3C's Tracking Protection Working Group announced it had renewed its charter through April of 2014. That seemingly simple move -- which effectively enabled the group to continue working -- is now triggering some pushback from the industry.

This weekend, Alan Chapell, an attorney who advises industry organizations on privacy issues, formally asked the W3C's tracking protection group to stop all work pending further discussion. He writes in a letter to the W3C's leadership that the group's "failure to conduct the ... renewal in a transparent manner constitutes a fatal flaw that will negatively impact the legitimacy of this group’s output unless rectified."

All the major browser manufacturers now offer do-not-track headers, but it's up to ad networks and publishers to decide how to respond to them. The W3C's tracking protection group -- made up of advocates, industry representatives and computer scientists -- has been trying for around two years to reach an agreement about how to interpert the headers.

The effort has stalled, and not even the appointment of law school professor Peter Swire -- praised for his ability to forge consensus -- has so far ended the impasse. One bone of contention centers on how much data companies can collect when users activate the headers. Privacy advocates say that companies should stop gathering data when people don't want to be tracked, but many online ad companies have said they want to continue to collect analytics information from users.

Chapell now says that the disagreements within the group are so fundamental that the charter shouldn't have been extended without more discussion. "Given the lack of progress over the past six months, an examination of how much longer group members should continue to invest in this process would have been prudent," he writes.

He also questions whether the charter substantively needs to be changed to include standards outlining how browser developers should explain do-not-track headers to consumers.

Earlier today, Swire said in an email to group members that he didn't know until recently that extending the charter would cause controversy. "My perspective was that I was announced at the end of November to be the new co-chair. A diverse set of stakeholders were involved in my coming on board, and it made common sense to me that we would have a fair shot of working together to try to build a standard," he wrote.

Not surprisingly, Swire adds that he doesn't agree that the committee should stop work pending further discussion.

The W3C Advisory Committee will now consider Chapell's objections. If 5% of the committee agrees with Chapell, it will vote on whether to approve the decision extending the tracking group's charter.

1 comment about "W3C Faces New Challenge On Do-Not-Track ".
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  1. Pete Austin from Fresh Relevance, March 6, 2013 at 5:19 a.m.

    Has this group ever produced an agreed definition of what they mean by "tracking?" This could mean anything from merely reading referer headers to accumulating data across multiple sites. Without a definition, it seems pointless to continue.

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