W3C moves Do Not Track to showdown phase

The World Wide Web Consortium opens a three-day meeting to define the parameters of its Web Tracking Protection specification. It is being closely watched by the digital advertising industry and privacy and consumer groups.

The showdown over Do Not Track technology and standardization continues today at the kickoff of the three-day long meeting of the World Wide Web Consortium's Tracking Protection Working Group.

At stake is how sharp the teeth will be in the W3C working group's emerging Web Tracking Protection specification and how much more contentious the clash will become between privacy advocates on one side, and owners of social web sites and digital advertising industry leaders, who have a Do Not Target preference that leaves data collection decisions out of the hands of consumers.

On the flip side, privacy groups and advocates want consumers to have control over data collection and the ability to declare they do not want to be tracked.

Do Not Track could provide that control, whereas Do Not Target would permit data collection but turn off targeted advertising based on a user's web surfing preferences.

The term "tracking" includes methods that websites, advertisers and others use to learn about web browsing behavior, including sites visited, likes, dislikes and purchases. The collected information is used to show specifically targeted ads, products or services.

The three-day meeting will bring together members of the Tracking Protection Working Group that includes lawyers and academics along with representatives from Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, Apple, AT&T, the FTC, and invited experts from privacy groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Center for Digital Democracy.

The W3C's Tracking Protection Working Group has been meeting since September 2011, and holds weekly teleconferences. It is aiming for June to complete its work, but the next three days should help define where the W3C standard will fall between the ideals professed by digital advertising industry concerns and consumer protection advocates.

"I think this is a litmus test for how much industry is wiling to sit down with consumer and privacy groups to work out new approaches to protect consumers," said Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy (CDD).

Among other things, the Tracking Protection Working Group is defining Internet standards for a Do Not Track button that gives browser users one click to turn off tracking.

Even though Google, Yahoo, Apple and others with interests on the advertising side are part of the W3C process, digital advertisers in general have painted Do Not Track as an industry killer.

Randall Rothenberg, president and CEO of the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB), compared the threat of Do Not Track technology to the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect IP Act (PIPA) controversies that arose earlier this year and sent shivers through the Internet.

"Threats to our industry are very, very real," Rothenberg said at the annual IAB Leadership Meeting in February. "There are equally grave dangers lurking out there that require even more engagement than SOPA and PIPA did."  He called out Do Not Track and said political activists have infiltrated the W3C. He said their move toward Do Not Track technology for inclusion in browsers will mean global black listing of legitimate news, entertainment and commerce sites.

Internet Explorer, Safari and Firefox already include Do Not Track technology, but it lacks teeth. For example, the Firefox controls are voluntary, meaning the web site can decide if it wants to honor the browser user's preference to not be tracked.

At the W3C meeting, the group will consider proposals to define parameters such as what is a first party and third party Web site and how they use and collects data, and exemptions for fraud detection or research purposes.

The meeting comes on the heels of the Privacy Bill of Rights introduced by the Obama Administration in February. While it is not specific to Do Not Track, it is framed by seven basic tenets, including "focused collection," which is defined as "consumers have a right to reasonable limits on the personal data that companies collect and retain."

The W3C meeting runs through Thursday.

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