Commentary

Web Standards Group Gets New Privacy Leaders

The Center for Democracy and Technology's Justin Brookman and Adobe's Carl Cargill will join Matthias Schunter as co-chairs of a group that is trying to craft privacy standards, the Web standards organization World Wide Web Consortium announced on Wednesday.

But whether the new leaders will have any better luck than their predecessors is an open question, considering that the W3C's Tracking Protection Working Group has been too mired in controversy to accomplish much in the last two years. The group was formed in order to develop standards about how to respond to do-not-track signals sent by browsers. Instead, the privacy advocates, industry representatives and computer scientists in that group have spent the last two years bickering about everything from the meaning of “tracking” to the decision-making procedures.

In that time, two prior co-chairs have exited -- Aleecia McDonald, now at Stanford, and law professor Peter Swire, who accepted a position on a White House task force examining data collection by the National Security Agency. Those aren't the only departures. Vocal privacy advocate Jonathan Mayer resigned earlier this summer, while the trade group Digital Advertising Alliance walked out this week.

Swire himself said in an email to the W3C's tracking protection group that he doesn't believe the organization has “a path to consensus,” given the “large blocs of stakeholders with views as divergent as the DAA, on the one hand, and those seeking stricter privacy rules, on the other.”

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He added: “I devoted my time as co-chair to trying to find creative ways to achieve consumer choice and privacy while also enabling a thriving commercial Internet. I no longer see any workable path to a standard that will gain active support from both wings of the Working Group.”

One of the most contentious points centered on how much information companies should be able to collect when consumers say they don't want to be “tracked.” Some ad companies say that they should still be able to gather as much data as possible, as long as they don't use that data to figure out what kinds of ads to serve people. At the other end of the spectrum, some privacy advocates say that companies should stop collecting nearly all data from consumers who say they don't want to be tracked.

For his part, Brookman acknowledges that the group overall might not be able to reach a consensus. In that case, he says, the three co-chairs will decide how to proceed.

“There's not going to be any magical standard everyone will sign off on at the end of the day,” says Brookman, who directs the CDT's consumer privacy project. “We'll try to get people to agree. But if, fundamentally, people are at loggerheads, the chairs will have to decide.”

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