The World Wide Web Consortium has released the first drafts of standards that will let people opt out of being tracked as they surf the web, and give companies a way of showing they comply with those privacy choices
The first standard provides a definition of Tracking Preference Expression, also known as Do Not Track, or DNT. The second gives
users a standardised method to say whether or not they agree to being
tracked across sites, while also giving site operators a way to
indicate that they honour this preference. Users will be able to grant
specific sites exemptions to a DNT preference.
"Smarter commerce and marketing strategies can and must co-exist
with respect for individual privacy," Matthias Schunter, the chair of
the W3C Tracking Protection Working Group and an IBM researcher,
said in a statement. "Open standards that help design privacy into the
fabric of how business and society use the web can enable trust in a
The W3C's working group includes representatives from most of the
web's biggest companies, ranging from Apple and Microsoft to Google,
Facebook and Mozilla. According to the statement, the group is trying
to "address both the privacy concerns of users and regulators, and the
business models of the web, which today rely heavily on advertising
People share an increasing amount of information with web service
providers, although they often do not realise they are doing so. The
information, usually gained by tracking the user with cookies, helps
companies tailor advertisements and modify their own sites to be more
It is a technique that has been around for years and is integral to
the business models of many companies, such as Google. However, it has
increasingly caught the attention of regulators and lawmakers.
Facebook, for example, has been
targeted by members of the US Congress for tracking
its users when they visited sites with an embedded 'Like' button,
even while they were logged out of Facebook itself.
Open standards that help design privacy into the fabric of how business and society use the web can enable trust in a sustainable manner.– Matthias Schunter
"Many users appreciate the personalisation made possible through
this data collection: an improved user experience, reduction in
irrelevant or repetitive ads, and avoidance of 'pay-walls' or
subscription-only services," the W3C said. "Others, however, perceive
targeting as intrusive, incorrect or amounting to junk mail. In
particular, it can evoke strong negative feelings when data collected
at a trusted site is used or shared without the user's consent."
According to the W3C, letting web surfers decide whether
or not to allow tracking "helps to establish a new communication
channel between users and services to prevent surprises and
re-establish trust in the marketplace".
Aleecia McDonald, a senior privacy researcher at Mozilla and
co-chair of the Tracking Protection Working Group, said DNT will let
people "choose the trade-offs that are right for them". She also
described the group's discussions on the matter as "constructive",
although she suggested that decisions were not yet reached by
DNT is already an option in many browsers such as Chrome
although in an unstandardised way.
The timescale for the standards' final publication fits in nicely
with the wishes of the European Commission, which warned
web companies in June that they would need to get DNT sorted out
At the time, digital agenda commissioner Neelie Kroes said
companies had to agree on what they mean when they say they are
honouring DNT, or else the Commission would "employ all available
means to ensure our citizens' right to privacy".
Other ideas have been floated as to how to ensure online privacy
when the user wants it. W3C director Tim Berners-Lee, who effectively
invented the web by writing the Hypertext Markup Language (HTML), said
in October that people could end up putting
their data into personalised cloud storage that they control. This
would allow people to grant social networks, for example, access to
their data when appropriate.
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