By Alexei Alexis
A World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) working group that has struggled to reach agreement on industry do not track rules has decided to press on with the effort, after making progress in some areas and issuing a consensus document during a May 6-8 meeting in Sunnyvale, Calif.
W3C is an international organization that develops internet standards. The working group will proceed toward a “last call” July deadline to issue draft standards for public comment, according to a summary of the consensus document circulated after the meeting.
“There were reports in the press before the meeting that the process might run into the ground,” Peter Swire, working group co-chairman, told BNA May 9. “Instead, we had a productive meeting and issued the consensus document.”
At issue is the practice of behavioral advertising, which involves the tracking of consumers' online activities for targeted marketing purposes. In light of consumer privacy concerns, the W3C has convened a working group to facilitate the development of voluntary do not track standards.
The effort involves allowing consumers to make do not track choices through their web browser settings. However, fundamental policy and technical issues need to be worked out (12 PVLR 483, 3/18/13).
According to the consensus document summary, there is agreement among a broad set of participants that data retention for permitted uses of information should be “proportionate” and that there should always be transparency about such data retention periods. “Significant work remains to be done on whether to include any specific time limits and on specific transparency requirements,” the document stated.
The group also agreed that do not track should reflect the “explicit choice made by a user,” and there was a commitment to explore “anti-tampering measures” toward this goal.
Consumer advocates and the online advertising industry have clashed over how far do not track standards should go.
In 2012, Microsoft Corp. further complicated the process by deciding to roll out a new Internet Explorer 10 browser with a default do not track setting (11 PVLR 1068, 7/2/12).
The move prompted objections from the Digital Advertising Alliance (DAA), a consortium of marketing industry groups. The DAA has said that its members will not be required to honor such a default approach because it reflects the choice of the browser manufacturer instead of the consumer and is inconsistent with industry standards (11 PVLR 1511, 10/15/12).
The DAA has also been critical of a related consumer privacy initiative undertaken by Mozilla Corp., maker of the Firefox web browser.
The issue took center stage at an April 24 hearing before the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, where the DAA accused Microsoft and Mozilla of failing to honor its commitment to cooperate with the do not track effort (12 PVLR 734, 4/29/13).
After the hearing, Committee Chairman John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) told reporters that legislative action is possible if industry players fail to resolve the issue on their own.
In March, Rockefeller reintroduced a bill (S. 418) to create mandatory do not track rules, enforceable by the Federal Trade Commission (12 PVLR 369, 3/4/13).
Privacy groups, browser manufacturers, advertisers, and other stakeholders involved in the do not track effort supported the consensus document that came out of the Sunnyvale meeting, according to Swire.
He declined to comment on whether the “explicit choice made by a user” language would bar browsers that are set to do not track by default, such as the one that Microsoft has rolled out, saying that he would allow the consensus document to “speak for itself.”
Despite the progress that has been made so far, John Simpson, privacy project director for Consumer Watchdog, a public interest group that supports Rockefeller's bill, was skeptical about the possibility of a final industry agreement being reached.
“The consensus agreement was nothing more than an agreement to continue talking,” he told BNA May 9. “I would be happy to be proved wrong, but I am hard pressed to see how the working group can produce the critical 'last call' document by July.”
Sid Stamm, lead privacy engineer at Mozilla, said in a May 9 statement that the company remains committed to creating a do not track standard to empower user privacy and will continue working with all stakeholders until this gets done.
“Our goal is to find a solution that balances the interests of both sides while keeping users' needs paramount,” he said.
Full text of the W3C “Consensus Action Summary” is available at http://op.bna.com/der.nsf/r?Open=sbay-97jv8n.