Ad community to the World Wide Web Consortium: The Do Not Track working group process is broken.
Dissatisfied with the failed, two-and-a-half-year-old process to establish a universal Do Not Track standard, the Digital Advertising Alliance is formally pulling out of the 110-member tracking protection working group (TPWG).
In a letter it plans to send to the W3C on Tuesday, the DAA said the group had "reached the end of its useful life."
"It has become clear that this W3C effort will not foster the development of a workable solution," wrote Lou Mastria, executive director of the DAA.
The move could be risky for the DAA in Washington. It will no doubt catch flak from the Federal Trade Commission and other policymakers who have relied on the W3C to come up with something in the absence of legislation. They are likely to point to the DAA's action as another example of an industry that is only protecting its own self-interest, not the consumer's. It may even lead some lawmakers to renew the call for baseline privacy legislation.
FTC chairwoman Edith Ramirez said she was disappointed. "My end goal on Do Not Track remains for consumers to have meaningful choices not to be tracked, whether that option emerges from within or outside the W3C. Consumers deserve a functioning Do Not Track system that is easy, effective and enforceable, persistent, universal and that affects collection, not just use, of data for marketing purposes. Reaching that goal requires compromise on the part of all involved," Ramirez said in an emailed statement.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), who re-introduced his Do Not Track privacy bill earlier, said it's time for Congress act. "When the online advertising industry has no incentive to provide consumers with strong privacy protections, this is the result. Legislation is the only way to give consumers more control over their personal information. Industry has proven it won't do it of its own accord," he said in an emailed statement.
The DAA's exit won't be a surprise to anyone who has followed the group's futile attempts to reach any agreement when it comes to Do Not Track. By the time the group took a break in August, both privacy hawks and the advertising community were ready to throw in the towel. Even the co-chairman, Peter Swire, a privacy expert who had worked with the Obama administration and was recruited to salvage the process, bailed out for personal and professional reasons. Now the group is in search of a new co-chairman.
"The only one that doesn't think it's a failure is the W3C. Everyone else thinks it's a colossal failure," said Stu Ingis, a partner with Venable who represents the DAA.
More than two years later, the group was never able to define the most fundamental issues around a Do Not Track standard, including defining what tracking meant or what harm or problem the group was trying to solve.
Responding to the DAA's exit in an email to the group, Swire said he was sad but not surprised by DAA's decision to withdraw. Saying he too was frustrated, Swire both agreed with the DAA that he didn't see a path to consensus yet expressed some doubts that process was the reason. "When participants don't get the outcome they want on substance, they often blame the procedure. … Going forward, there are cogent reasons for stakeholders to continue to work, inside and outside of W3C, to develop standards and good practices for commercial privacy on the Internet. We knew coming in that this was a hard problem. It remains a hard problem. The procedures at W3C this summer are not the reason it became hard."
Whether or not the DAA's exit will result in the group shutting down for good is uncertain. Certainly, a lot of members have complained about the group's inability to get anything done and many have threatened to quit. A number of individual companies that are members of the DAA are staying on, including DAA members the Interactive Advertising Bureau, the Network Advertising Initiative and the Direct Marketing Association.
"Should the NAI withdraw today, the working group will be comprised of consumer advocates, U.S. and European regulators, and a dozen large, global corporations that sit in a different place in the online advertising ecosystem," said Marc Groman, executive director of the NAI.
On the other hand, the DAA's exit could also be the last straw for the group.
Privacy advocate Jonathan Mayer, a Stanford University privacy expert who works with Mozilla, quit the group last month. "Given the lack of a viable path to consensus, I can no longer justify the substantial time, travel and effort associated with continuing in the working group," Mayer said in his resignation letter. "We do not have clear rules of decision. And even if we were to have procedural commitments, they could be unilaterally cast aside at any time. This is not process. This is the absence of process.”
Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, predicted that there was so much tension in the group that "it could easily go into free fall and come unglued."
As if to preempt objections from the FTC and others, the DAA said in its letter that it is not abandoning Do Not Track, just the group. It plans to convene a process to evaluate how browser-based signals can be used to meaningfully address consumer privacy. It also reminded the W3C that since the group was convened, the DAA has developed and established its own self-regulatory process that gives consumers the choice to opt-out of targeted ads.
"We have a proven track record of getting things done. If policymakers want things to move forward, we know how to do that," said Ingis. "We'll work with the consumer privacy groups. I hope the rest will work with us."