Turmoil Surfaces in the Do Not Track Group

Process disagreement may derail goal of consensus

Few participants in the W3C's tracking protection working group are happy with the way things are going. And now a controversy around process has erupted just as the group is at a crossroads in determining its next steps in hammering out a Do Not Track standard.

For two years, the group has tried to reach a consensus on a technical Do Not Track browser standard that would give consumers an easy way to stop companies from tracking clicks across the Internet. After the previous chair failed to resolve the issue, Peter Swire, a professor of law at Ohio State University and former White House privacy official, stepped in late last year. (Matthias Schunter, of Intel, serves as co-chair.)

But it looks like Swire is not having any more success than his predecessor, and now he and Schunter are catching flak for their decision—some say made unilaterally—to reject a proposal from the Digital Advertising Alliance, Yahoo, AOL and others in favor of Swire's own penned document. Adding insult to injury, members were ticked off that they read about the co-chairs' decision in The New York Times before hearing about it from the group.

The so-called DAA proposal would prohibit ad networks from identifying which specific websites users visited. Instead, Web activity could be categorized for targeted advertising purposes. Immediately unpopular with privacy advocates because it would allow for behavioral targeting, no one liked Swire's June draft either, yet it's the June document the group will now use going forward.

According to vote tallies by participants, the vote was actually in favor of the DAA-led proposal. The margin, however, was narrow, with plenty of no votes.

"How is there a path to agreement with a base text that two-thirds of the group opposes?" asked Jonathan Mayer, a researcher with Stanford University, who is also working with Mozilla on its cookie-blocking technology. "It strains credibility."

"Swire ignored the vote and the W3C process and then produced a 34-page document," said one ad industry participant.

Thomas Roessler, the W3C senior staffer running the group, said the chairs' decision wasn't based on a vote, but on their "assessment of the weakest objection … We have change proposals against the June draft from all sides. Getting those change proposals on the table, and being able to work through them, is exactly the point of the current process. The working group's decision this week was simply the first decision in a sequence."

Following the vote, a number of members voiced concerns about how Swire managed the process, accusing him of circumventing W3C procedures by publishing a draft the group had not approved and limiting the group's options for what might be included in it.

"Having the chairs make selective choices about which alternatives to include in the latest editorial draft is not, in my opinion, improving our progress toward a consensus to publish, let alone a consensus for last call," wrote Roy Fielding, senior principal scientist with Adobe.

"Members of the WG [working group] have asked dozens if not hundreds of process-related questions over the past month; very few have received a meaningful response. If the goal of the decision document [aka, June draft] is to have Peter [Swire] opine on the state of Do Not Track, then that should not be mistaken for a consensus decision by this WB," wrote Alan Chapell, of Chapell Associates and co-chair of the Mobile Marketing Association's privacy committee.

Time is running out for the group. In a week, Swire is off for the month of August. (He's getting married and moving to a new position at Georgia Tech.)

"Swire has gotten himself in trouble by saying that the only way he would continue the process beyond July is if we could demonstrate significant process," said Mike Zaneis, svp and general counsel of the Interactive Advertising Bureau.

With just one week to go, process may have sidetracked any progress toward Do Not Track.

"There's a lot of tension in the group about where to go," said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. "This thing could easily go into free fall and come unglued."

A W3C representative downplayed the controversy as more bellyaching from the advertising community. Swire and Schunter were not immediately available for comment. 

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