Do Not Track initiative goes off track

Tools

An unlikely and difficult initiative for helping people manage how their activities are tracked across the Internet got a little more difficult this week as Aleecia McDonald stepped down as co-chair of the W3C's Tracking Protection Working Group.

The Center for Digital Democracy said the change reflects a "multi-stakeholder" process in turmoil. It also said that the group lacked incentive to develop meaningful proposals because many members of it were industry insiders whose interests were not served by developing them.

In fact, the CDD reported that "there has often been very bitter and contentious behavior exhibited in the group toward individuals seen as more supportive of an effective DNT system" and that those who have offered proposals for greater DNT controls have been criticized.

"[It] was foolish to ever assume that a technical standards group consisting of large online industry companies and groups would adopt a standard that would challenge its fundamental business model of pervasive data collection," the CDD said. A list of member companies can be found here.

The CDD also said the working group was underfunded and lacked a proactive role from the Federal Trade Commission and the European Union. "The failure of government agencies to engage the companies on the W3C has led to its current dysfunction and potential failure," the organization said.

The W3C named Peter Swire, law professor at Ohio State University, as the new co-chair of the group, and tasked him with forging a consensus between privacy advocates, computer scientists and industry representatives. Swire has worked for both the Obama and Clinton administrations, and coordinated the White House's efforts on the major privacy law of the 1990s--the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.

OnlineMediaDaily said the W3C's "Do Not Track" effort appears to have reached an impasse. On the one hand, Privacy advocates say ad networks should stop gathering data about people's web surfing activity if they have turned on DNT, but on the other, the online ad industry says that companies need to just stop targeting ads based on users' web-surfing activity when they say they don't want to be tracked.

OnlineMediaDaily quotes Jonathan Mayer, a Stanford University graduate student and privacy advocate, saying, "There's no doubt that group discussions have taken on a much more vitriolic tone of late." The article also reports that a third group, an ad industry umbrella group called the Digital Advertising Alliance, has said the W3C shouldn't be considering policy issues at all and should restrict itself to technical issues.

The Washington Post also commented on the issue, quoting McDonald from a few months ago, where she discussed the contentiousness of the group and said the recommendations the group was to make, "We're not going to get it done by January 1."

In a different Post story this week, writer Craig Timberg quoted participants as saying "the two-year-old drive to give consumers a simple way to block companies from tracking their behavior as they move across the Internet has faltered."  Timberg said the friction puts in peril the "Do Not Track" initiative that appeared to have widespread support at a White House event in February.

For more:
- see Tracking Protection Working Group Charter

Related Articles:
Ad industry's stance on 'Do Not Track': Orwellian, Looney Tunes or just plain folly?
UC Berkeley study: Don't track me bro'
Microsoft and Do Not Track: Redmond deserves a hand