Do Not Track standards group shoots down advertiser proposal

A W3C working group will proceed with its existing draft standard for governing how browsers tell advertisers that people don't want their online behavior tracked.

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A standards group has rejected a proposed standard from several advertising groups on the best way to let people tell Web site operators not to track their behavior.

The leaders of Tracking Protection Working Group, which includes representatives from browser makers, advertisers, privacy groups, and more, announced the decision Monday night. Instead, the group will use the June 2013 draft of the proposed "Do Not Track" standard.

The standards work is taking place at the World Wide Web Consortium, and the decision is final, said the group's two co-chairs, Peter Swire, who joined in November, and Matthias Schunter.

"We will not revisit the choices presented in the DAA change proposal and rejected in this decision," the co-chairs said, referring to the Digital Advertising Alliance. The DAA represents various advertising and marketing trade groups. Yahoo, Comcast, and AOL had endorsed the DAA's Do Not Track proposal.

The standards group didn't like several aspects of the DAA proposal, which was submitted late last month. Among the aspects it didn't like:

• A narrower definition of what it means to track users.

• A narrower definition of what it means to collect, retain, use, and share data.

• Reliance on a separate DAA opt-out mechanism if users wanted to disable targeted advertising as well as behavioral tracking.

In a statement on Tuesday, the advertising groups expressed displeasure with the rejection and with the current state of the DNT proposal:

The broad industry proposal not selected by Professor Swire reflected the marketing and advertising community's commitment to developing a working Do Not Track model that is true to our 2012 White House agreement and provides real choice to consumers, while at the same time protecting the economic engine of the Internet.

Our organizations remain committed to any consensus process that seeks to keep control in the hands of Internet users.

Unfortunately, the Do Not Track signal, as currently configured, does not and cannot reflect the real choices of Internet users. The signal has proven to be far too easy to hijack, allowing self-appointed intermediaries to turn DNT signals on, often without any knowledge, consent or input from users.

The advertising groups also pointed to a Zogby poll that found "at least 68 percent of consumers prefer to get at least some Internet ads directed at their interests and 75 percent prefer to make their own decisions about relevant advertisements," and suggested that people use its online tool for setting ad preferences.

Alex Fowler, chief privacy officer at Firefox developer Mozilla, said the organization is happy with the decision:

Mozilla is pleased with the W3C co-chairs' decision to use the June Draft as the basis for the Do Not Track standard, and for recognizing that the DAA's alternate proposal would have been a step backwards in user choice and privacy. We will work with our W3C colleagues to standardize a Do Not Track solution that respects individual user intent while attending to valid commercial concerns.

DNT has been a contentious issue, with privacy advocates wanting to give people an easy way to stop the tracking but advertising groups wanting to improve the effectiveness of online advertising. With such divergent views, standardization work has been slow and fractious, though Swire said the Do Not Track standardization process is back on track.

Part of the difficulty is that both sides have real muscle in the fight. Privacy advocates have the threat of Do Not Track legislation that might produce results more draconian than those advertisers would prefer. But from the other side, a standard that advertisers deem too tough can simply be ignored. One sticking point, still an issue, came when Microsoft chose to enable the DNT setting in Internet Explorer if a Windows 8 user accepted the default settings; advertisers want people to have to express their choice more actively than just accepting default settings.

Next up will be a working group discussion of the recommended changes to the June draft standard, then a decision on how to proceed with standardization. "Before the end of July, the group will discuss whether and how to proceed in light of the current Last Call deadline scheduled for the end of July," the co-chairs said.

Reaching the last-call status means the working group believes its draft standard meets its goals, but there are later stages in the process before the proposal becomes a W3C-recommended standard.

Updated at 1:20 p.m. PT with comment from the advertising groups.