Commentary

Can Ad Networks And Advocates Close The Gap On Do-Not-Track?

Will the World Wide Web Consortium's effort to forge online privacy standards come to naught?

Some privacy advocates are suggesting the answer could be yes. Jonathan Mayer, a computer scientist and recent law school graduate from Stanford, recently predicted that the W3C's tracking protection group might not be able to reach an agreement about what do-not-track should mean. “There must come a stopping point. There must come a time when we agree to disagree. If we cannot reach consensus by next month, I believe we will have arrived at that time,” he wrote in a message to the group.

The W3C's tracking protection group is made up of programmers, ad industry representatives, privacy advocates and academics. For more than two years, the organization has tried to reach an agreement about how Web sites and ad networks should respond when consumers turn on do-not-track signals.

To date, the group has been unable to agree on several key issues. One centers on what kinds of information ad networks should be able to collect after consumers turn on do-not-track signals. The ad industry says companies should stop serving behaviorally targeted ads -- that is, ads targeted based on data collected across more than one site -- from people who don't want to be tracked.

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At the same time, the industry wants to continue gathering data from those users for market research and analytics. But privacy advocates say that ad networks should stop collecting that type of data if users say they don't want to be tracked.

Another major unresolved issue centers on how companies should respond when a browser manufacturer activates do-not-track by default -- as Microsoft recently did in Internet Explorer 10.

The ad industry says do-not-track signals that are turned on by default don't reflect consumers' preferences. But privacy advocates say that some consumers who use browsers with pre-set do-not-track headers do so precisely because they think they're getting additional privacy protection.

Mayer pointed to both of these issues in his message to the group. “We still have not resolved our longstanding key disagreements, including: What information can websites collect, retain, and use? What sorts of user interfaces and defaults are compliant, and can websites ignore noncompliant browsers?” he wrote.

Of course, Mayer is hardly the last word in the process. But he's become among the most outspoken computer scientists involved in the debate about privacy. Among other reasons, he exposed various privacy lapses by tech companies -- such as Google's tracking of Safari users -- and also developed code to block third-party cookies in the Firefox browser. (Mozilla is still evaluating whether to include that code in Firefox.)

For his part, law professor Peter Swire, who is co-chairing the W3C's tracking protection group, tells MediaPost that the organization is still working to come up with proposed standards by the end of July.

Mayer adds that, despite his message to the group, he remains hopeful that the various parties will reach a consensus. But he tells MediaPost that if this doesn't happen, it's better to end the process than try to draft a standard that doesn't reflect any real agreement between privacy advocates and the ad industry. “That's concerning because then what happens afterward is, everyone starts tussling about what the provisions meant,” he says. “Wind-up is a better option.”

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