Commentary

Do-Not-Track Group Loses Co-Chair

As expected, law school professor Peter Swire says he will no longer serve as co-chair of a group that's trying to develop standards to implement do-not-track requests.

Swire, who was tapped by the Obama administration to examine issues surrounding surveillance by the National Security Agency, has served as co-chair of the World Wide Web Consortium's tracking protection group since last November. When he took over as co-chair, observers praised his ability to forge consensus.

But Swire had no better luck bringing about an agreement than the former co-chair, Stanford's Aleecia McDonald, did. The privacy advocates, ad industry representatives and other members were simply unable to see eye-to-eye about what should happen when do-not-track signals are activated.

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The signals don't block tracking. Instead, they communicate a do-not-track request to publishers and ad networks. But individual companies are free to respond to the request however they like, or ignore it altogether.

Privacy advocates said that Web companies should stop collecting data from consumers if they had activated their browsers' do-not-track signals. But ad companies said they needed to continue to collect data for analytics, market research and other purposes.

For much of the last two years, the ad industry said it was willing to stop serving behaviorally targeted ads to people who had activated do-not-track. But this summer the industry backed away from even that position, and suggested instead that companies merely “de-identify” data if users activated do-not-track.

That suggestion turned out to be a non-starter: Swire and the other co-chair, Matthias Schunter, wrote that it was “at odds with our chartered aims and the weight of group consensus.”

The ad industry wasn't happy about seeing its suggestion rejected. Some ad executives went so far as to threaten to reject whatever standard the group arrived at.

The W3C's tracking protection group hasn't convened this month, but will resume regular teleconferences after Labor Day, according to Jeff Jaffe, CEO of the W3C. He said today in an email to the group that Schunter will serve as the sole chair while the W3C seeks a replacement for Swire.

Meanwhile, some lawmakers seem to be growing impatient with the W3C's slow progress. In California, the senate and assembly passed a bill that would require some Web site operators to state in their privacy policies how they respond to do-not-track headers. That law is awaiting the governor's signature.

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