The Internet’s best hope for a Do Not Track standard is falling apart. Here’s why.

October 11, 2013

Should businesses be forced to stop tracking your movements on the Internet?

It sounds like a simple question. But judging by the growing despair among members of a diverse group assigned by a standards body to resolve just this issue, the answer is hardly clear. The task force itself is deeply divided; in a member survey completed Wednesday, half of respondents — albeit a minority of the entire working group — said the negotiations weren't working and should be abandoned.

"This proceeding is so flawed — it's a farce," wrote Jeffrey Chester, executive director of a privacy group involved in the talks, in a comment. "Global online users deserve better."

The working group is affiliated with the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the official custodian of Web standards. It was initially brought together to develop a negotiated approach to online behavioral tracking. The collection of ad companies, privacy advocates and outside experts were supposed to settle a longstanding debate about consumer privacy and help determine the future of advertising technology.

But what began as cautious engagement among these groups has devolved into open revolt against the process.

"We appreciate the efforts of the W3C and all of the chairs to date," wrote Lee Tien, a top lawyer with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, "but EFF has lost confidence that the process will produce a standard that we would support. We therefore prefer that the group simply end. If the group continues, we would seriously consider dropping out."

The impending collapse of the Do Not Track conversation is part of a broader failure to agree on what obligations advertising companies have with regard to online tracking — and what the word "tracking" even means.

When the talks began, the ad industry touted a solution that's already on the market: an opt-out mechanism whereby users can visit a Web site and choose not to receive targeted ads from up to 114 third-party advertisers with the click of a button. Last year, a million people used the tool and more than 5 million visited the site for information about online ads, Luigi Mastria, a spokesman for the Digital Advertising Alliance, told the Senate Commerce Committee in April.

But while the opt-out function is meant to guarantee the end of targeted Web advertising, it doesn't rule out the collection of consumer data, said EFF's Tien in an interview.

"The issue for us is, do they know that I or my browser or my mobile device visited this Web site at this time," said Tien. "The issue then becomes whether there are any ways of preventing that kind of collection and compilation of Web browsing history."

An explicit rule on data collection would have far more reach than a rule about Web advertising as ad companies increasingly devise new ways to perform behavioral tracking.

The deadlock over how to define tracking encouraged another faction — engineers — to move ahead on their own.

Browser manufacturers such as Microsoft and Mozilla have taken steps to implement their own vision of Do Not Track as a separate setting — which, when enabled, sends a signal to Web sites indicating that the user doesn't want to be served targeted ads. That move, however, raised another question: Is it better for companies to implement technical fixes on an ad hoc basis, or is it better to settle on a broad-based agreement that can be applied consistently?

Jules Polonetsky, a privacy expert at the Future of Privacy Forum who is a part of the task force but has mostly kept his distance, said letting the browsers take matters into their own hands could be risky. While a Do Not Track browser setting might keep customers from being served targeted advertising, it might also block desirable cookies that are necessary for displaying other forms of content. Meanwhile, the advertising industry would be disrupted by a technical standard it had no say in implementing.

"In an arms race, advertisers lose," said Polonetsky in an interview. "Consumers and the technology that supports them may prevail, but that's not a good place for companies to be."

So where do the Do Not Track negotiations go from here? In the wake of Wednesday's poll, the W3C is not expected to terminate the group. Instead, it might settle for establishing a definition for Do Not Track without laying out steps for compliance. Meanwhile, the Digital Advertising Alliance, an industry organization that recently exited the W3C working group, is developing its own draft standards. So while the W3C's attempt may have stalled, Do Not Track may still have some life left.

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post.
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