Do-Not-Track on the Ropes as Ad Industry Ditches W3C

DAA's Departure Could Be Death Knell for Beleaguered Initiative

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Lou Mastria
Lou Mastria

The ad industry's privacy group just may have sounded the death knell for the worldwide Do Not Track initiative. The Digital Advertising Alliance announced it will depart the World Wide Web Consortium's (W3C) Tracking Protection Working Group. That's the broad collective of privacy advocates, technologists, ad industry representatives and lawyers who have struggled over the past two years to define online tracking and determine a standard for a browser-based do-not-track mechanism, to no avail.

"If you measure it by progress, it's dead," said Lou Mastria, managing director of the DAA regarding the W3C project. "It has acheived nothing for privacy in two years."

The decision could strike a fatal blow to an already injured process. W3C Co-Chair Peter Swire left the group less than a month ago. He's now working with President Obama's newly created Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies. Insiders suggest it's been difficult to find a replacement for what many say is a thankless position.

Another notable goodbye came from Stanford privacy activist Jonathan Mayer, who left recently after concluding the project was too stalled to be productive.

The acrimony between privacy advocates and the ad industry was palpable during a panel yesterday at a workshop preceding the Privacy Identity Innovation conference, to be held today and tomorrow in Seattle. Discussion of the W3C process grew heated, particularly between W3C members Aleecia McDonald, director of privacy at Stanford's Center for Internet and Society, and Chris Mejia, director of digital supply chain solutions and ad technology for the Interactive Advertising Bureau, a DAA participant.

Using the "sausage-making" analogy, Mr. Mejia suggested that as a forum, the W3C is not the best "sausage factory," and pointed to the fact that the group has yet even to define what tracking is. In part, contention lies in whether the group only should be determining technical specs for a DNT standard, or whether it also should be dealing with policy issues.

Ms. McDonald argued that there is still hope for progress and her experience has been less hampered by obstacles perceived by Mr. Mejia and other participants.

"I don't see any of the hallmarks of progress," said Mr. Mastria. "I see frustration. I see misunderstandings."

Privacy activist Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, wrote in a statement, "If the DAA power brokers -- Google, Yahoo, and the ad giants, had really wanted to deliver new privacy protection clout to consumers, our work would have successfully finished a year ago."

In his letter to Jeff Jaffe, CEO of W3C, Mr. Mastria noted, "Going forward, the DAA intends to focus its time and efforts on growing this already-successful consumer choice program in 'desktop,' mobile and in-app environments."

Without elaborating, Mr. Mastria implied during a phone interview the DAA may begin work on its own browser-based DNT technology. "We'll just start the process of investigating how we'll move forward," he said.

Currently, the industry's self-regulatory AdChoices program, overseen by the DAA, notifies people of online ad targeting via a tiny blue icon in ads; people can click the icon and follow a process to opt-out from ad targeting and some data collection. Mr. Mastria said 2.5 million people have opted out via the program.

The DAA and privacy advocates are at odds when it comes to tracking for things like website analytics and ad-campaign measurement.

Another DNT alternative is the Cookie Clearinghouse. Firefox browser maker Mozilla, along with Stanford Center for Internet and Society, have spearheaded the initiative which will publish lists of domains deemed acceptable for tracking by browsers, and lists of domains that should be blocked from tracking. The project is still in the early stages and participants are determining criteria for the lists.

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