Ad Industry Will Soon Unveil a Do Not Track Browser Solution

Consumers will be able to opt out of data collection

After dissing the likes of Microsoft and Mozilla for their default Do Not Track browsers and after walking out of the World Wide Web Consortium's tracking protection working group, the advertising industry (through the Digital Advertising Alliance) plans to unveil its own one-click browser solution that will allow consumers to opt out of web site data collection.

But don't call it "Do Not Track."

The solution, which the DAA calls "browser choice”, was two years in the making. When rolled out (it's expected within the next few weeks), it will fulfill a promise the industry made back then to the Federal Trade Commission that the industry would "begin work to add browser-based header signals to the set of tools by which consumers can express their preferences under the DAA principles."

At the time, just about everyone in Washington interpreted the DAA's commitment to mean the industry would support any "Do Not Track" solution.

Trouble was, the browser solutions being debated were too draconian for the ad industry to support. Either the feature was on by default (i.e., Microsoft), or too sweeping without any exemptions for things like research. They most certainly would have made advertising on the Internet less attractive.

"For the Internet to function, there still has to be some data collection," said Stu Ingis, the Venable attorney who represents the DAA.

The final product will include some of the same hallmarks of the DAA's ad choices self-regulatory program, which allows consumers to opt-out of online behaviorally targeted advertising by clicking on a little blue icon that appears on ads.

"We'll have monitoring and compliance," said DAA executive director Lou Mastria. "We'll have the whole industry buying into it. The broad buy-in is what makes it a meaningful program. We won't face the challenge about implementation and enforcement."

Compliance and enforcement has been a shortcoming of today's browser Do Not Track signals. The signals can be ignored by companies, publishers and ad networks that can still track users across web sites.

The W3C can't solve the compliance problem faced by the browsers, but it has made some progress on Do Not Track, last week publishing the draft of a technical specifications standard for how a browser would send a signal to a web site from which a consumer wishes to opt-out of data collection.

Wendy Seltzer, who heads up W3C's technology and society group, called it a "concrete next step" towards finalizing the standard next year. Justin Brookman, the privacy director for Center for Democracy and Technology who co-chairs of the W3C's tracking protection working group, called the draft a "huge milestone."

"The meaning of the Do Not rack signal is now standardized—it means you're telling a server that you don't want it to collect data about you across different companies' websites," Brookman wrote in a blog post. Right now, the signal would apply to ad networks, but not first-party collectors like Amazon or other publishers.

Advertisers think their way is the more practical approach to giving consumers control and choice. "[The W3C's draft] may be a technical step, but it falls short as a privacy step," Mastria said of the W3C. "That's the challenge. The W3C doesn't deliver a privacy regime that works. Consumers can send the signal, but so what."

The ad industry is still working on how the browser choice mechanism would work with ad choices; there is some obvious overlap. But, said Ingis, most of the hard work is done.