Do Not Track Is Finally Coming, but not as Originally Planned

Tool Will Be Less Standardized Than Expected

By Published on .

The icon of the online ad industry's privacy program
The icon of the online ad industry's privacy program

The long-awaited Do Not Track system is coming soon, but it's a shell of its former self.

It seems like ages since former Federal Trade Commission Chairman Jon Liebowitz stunned the digital ad industry in December 2010 by calling for a universal Do-Not-Track system. Since then, privacy and tech wonks at the Worldwide Web Consortium (W3C) -- the global organization that took the helm in developing the would-be technology -- have slogged through a tedious process to devise a standardized system that would alert users to online tracking and allow them to opt out from it.

Meanwhile, the industry trade coalition Digital Advertising Alliance pushed its own self-regulatory opt-out tool into ubiquity. The DAA's system allowing people to opt out -- not always from tracking, but from ad targeting -- is represented by the triangular blue icon seen in countless display ads across the web. Clicking the icon takes people to more information about the companies tracking them and lets them opt out from receiving targeted ads.

In a "couple weeks," the W3C will introduce its technical mechanism for DNT laying out how web servers and browsers should communicate user preferences for how or whether their online interactions are tracked by websites and third party technologies, according to Justin Brookman, co-chair of the W3C's Tracking Protection Working Group. However, it won't be the widely-agreed upon standard originally anticipated.

"It's recognition that there's a widely variant view of what the right approach is," said Mr. Brookman. Until June, he served as director of the Center for Democracy and Technology's Consumer Privacy Project. He is no longer with the organization.

"We decided that we'll suggest what we think is a reasonable approach" to data collection, said Mr. Brookman. The group may reevaluate the tool in "a couple years," he said. A related compliance document is open to comments from stakeholders.

"Originally, the goal was to get broad consensus between industry and advocates on a regime for limiting cross-site tracking at a user's request," he noted in a July 16 post on the International Association of Privacy Professionals site. "For a variety of reasons, that consensus never developed. Today, Do Not Track does not exist as a broad voluntary regime but instead as a mechanism for transparency and enforcement of potentially divergent user preferences."

Despite what might look like a quasi-solution from the W3C, consumers have taken tracking protection into their own hands. "Privacy advocates have long warned that industry failure to self-regulate would force consumers to block ads," wrote Mr. Brookman on the IAPP site. "If ad companies weren't willing to honor requests to stop tracking, then people would look for ways to affirmatively stop that tracking themselves. And as support for Do Not Track has faded, ad blocking has risen dramatically," he continued, referencing data from PageFair published by Digiday which shows global users of ad blocker tools has risen from 21 million in 2010 to 144 million in 2014.

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