W3C Group Rejects Industry Do Not Track Proposal

Consensus elusive as adoption deadline nears

The advertising industry suffered a setback late last night when the Tracking Protection Working Group of the World Wide Web Consortium rejected the Digital Advertising Alliance's draft proposal for a universal Do Not Track standard.

Instead, the 110-member group will work from another, more comprehensive, document—referred to as the June draft—that even privacy advocates believe faces insurmountable obstacles to adoption by the deadline at the end of this month.

For two years, the TPWG has tied itself up in knots in trying to bring diverse interests together to agree to a universal browser-based mechanism for Internet users to prevent advertisers and others from tracking, collecting and sharing consumers' online activities.

Advertisers and marketers, as well as other industry companies such as Yahoo and Nielsen, are concerned that certain approaches could hamper online behavioral advertising. The DAA offered a proposal that would have prohibited ad networks and others from identifying what specific websites users visited, categorizing the activity in a more general way, such as "interested in a new car."

Privacy advocates, as well as Mozilla, Apple and Microsoft, fought back hard against the alternative proposal, seeing it as another attempt by the marketing and advertising community to dodge Do Not Track.

After reviewing comments submitted last Friday, co-chairs Peter Swire and Mathias Schunter sided with privacy advocates and decided to reject the DAA's approach because it was "less protective of privacy and user choice than their earlier initiatives." The June draft, the co-chairs concluded, would be "more likely to lead to a standard that reaches the group's objectives."

Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, called the decision "a major political defeat" for advertisers and marketers.

Perhaps the biggest nonstarter for the critics of the DAA's proposal was that it did not address data collection. Mozilla, which is going ahead with its own Do Not Track cookie-blocker technology, was pleased with the decision for this reason. "The DAA's alternate proposal would have been a step backwards in user choice and privacy," said Alex Fowler, chief privacy officer for Mozilla, in a statement.

But while the privacy advocates, Mozilla and others may have won in this decision, it could leave the TPWG in limbo since the advertising and marketing groups are unlikely to support a default Do Not Track mechanism or any mechanism that doesn't allow for targeted advertising.

"There is little hope of resolving the dozen or so seemingly intractable issues before the July deadline. Most importantly, the DNT flag has been hijacked by self-serving intermediaries and no longer reflects actual user choice," said Mike Zaneis, svp and general counsel of the Interactive Advertising Bureau, a DAA member.

In the meantime, the DAA stressed that consumers have a choice to block behavioral targeted advertising through the industry's ad choices program. "It now appears that the W3C process will continue to be more of an intellectual exercise than anything else," said Rachel Thomas, vp of government affairs for the Direct Marketing Association, another DAA member.

Even privacy advocates don't see much of a way forward with the June draft, which nearly sends the group back to square one in defining tracking, collecting, retaining, using and sharing data, what data can be de-identified, whether the consumer mechanism should be opt-in or opt-out, and whether the mechanism should incorporate the DAA's ad choices program for opting out of behavioral targeted advertising. Many participants are weary of the two-year attempt to hammer out a Do Not Track browser standard that would satisfy all the disparate interests.

"The end-of-July deadline is a tight deadline," said Jonathan Mayer, a Stanford University researcher who is working with Mozilla on its technology to block third-party tracking cookies. "The chairs are going to have to come up with a reason for the group to continue to negotiate."

A very tried Swire wasn't any more optimistic than the group's participants. "We're going to make as much progress in July, and then the group will decide how to proceed," he said Tuesday after circulating a 34-page single-space explanatory memorandum that the group will take up beginning Wednesday in a phone call. 

The whole TPWG process may even shut down, leaving it up to Congress to try and pass legislation, a long shot at best—at least in the short term.

"It is naive to believe [the] industry would agree to data collection disarmament," said Chester. "This two-year privacy miniseries is going to be canceled, and someone will have to write the conclusion in Congress."

Though the group may shut down, there are still many private efforts in the marketplace from Microsoft, Apple and Mozilla for Do Not Track. "It looks like consumers are going to win on Do Not Track, just not through this," Mayer said.