When the World Wide Web Consortium's tracking protection working group, which is tasked with coming up with a Do Not Track browser standard, last met in July, the group was in disarray.
Now the group is facing another setback as its co-chairman Peter Swire officially bails from the group after less than a year.
The 110-member international group was formed two years ago to unite all stakeholders on a tracking standard. But by the end of last year, the group was still nowhere near consensus, and browser companies such as Mozilla and Microsoft began to go their own way with their own browser solutions, causing a controversy with the interactive advertising community.
Swire, a law professor and privacy expert who worked with the Obama administration, was brought in at the end of last year in an attempt to salvage the process.
He didn't get very far. Months later, many of the group's most active members hold out little hope that all the disparate interests could be satisfied. In July, the group was facing a go, no-go decision and because Swire was moving from Ohio State to Georgia Institute of Technology, few expected he'd even stay on. The group's next meeting is scheduled for early September.
Swire is leaving to join President Obama's new intelligence review panel. In an email to working group members announcing his resignation, he said he felt a "sense of responsibility" to serve on Obama's review group on intelligence and communications technology. Though news leaked that Swire was to be named to the administration's review group, he didn't officially resign from his position as co-chair of the working group until late Tuesday.
"Since last November, I have tried to work diligently with you to meet the goals of the working group," Swire wrote. "W3C has been a unique forum for bringing together the diverse perspectives on how commercial actors collect and use personal information on the Internet for advertising and other purposes. We have clarified the key issues, and I hope all stakeholders will continue your efforts to create a resolution that works well for individual users and a better Internet generally."
What this means for the future of Do Not Track, a concept championed by the Federal Trade Commission, is unclear. For the past two years, the FTC has depended on the group to come up with a standard in lieu of legislation, which is never easy, nor quick. Depending on what happens with the W3C group, the FTC might have to look for another course.
Just last week, FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez expressed hope that the W3C could find a solution to give consumers a universal way to protect their privacy from online tracking. "I still remain hopeful that the relevant stakeholders at the W3C will be able to arrive at a solution," Ramirez said at the Technology Policy Institutes annual forum in Aspen, Colo. "Whether it happens within W3C or outside of it, what I think is the most important development is that consumers are pushing for more control. A lot of companies are responding to that, and we've seen a lot of progress since the FTC first called for a Do Not Track mechanism," Ramirez told Politico.