The myth of Do Not Track -- and the tragedy of Internet privacy

As yet another Do Not Track deadline slips away, so do our chances of limiting data collection and mining by advertisers

I'll start today's post with a fairy tale: Long, long ago in a land far, far away, there lived two tribes. One, called the Privagoths, kept largely to themselves. They rarely ventured out beyond the confines of their ancestral lands. They did not mingle with other tribes; they just wanted to be left alone.

Another, known as the Advotati, were exactly the opposite. They were constantly invading Privagoth territory, watching to see where they hunted, what they caught, which nuts and berries they liked best, then making suggestions as to what the Privagoths should do next. All they asked for in return was a small percentage of whatever the Privagoths took.

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The Privagoths did not much like that the Advotati were watching their every move. They got very agitated. In turn, the Advotati insisted that without their help the Privagoths' hunting and gathering would be much less fruitful, and they'd have to roam further and longer to keep themselves fed. They might even starve.

Both tribes were on the verge of war when wise old King Liebowitz of the Intertribal Trade Commission insisted both sides sit down on the same log and work out their differences. Surely, King Liebowitz said, they could figure out a way so that those Privagoths who wished to follow the Advotati's suggestions could still do so, while others could hunt and gather without someone watching them all the time.

In the centuries since then, this is all the two tribes have been doing: sitting on the same damned log, arguing over nuts and berries. Meanwhile, the Privagoths continue to hunt, with the Advotati following closely behind.

All tracking, no action

Why am I going on like an episode of "Fractured Fairy Tales" on hallucinogens? Because I'm actually describing the battle over Do Not Track, which has been raging for the last five years, if not longer, with no end in sight.

The World Wide Web Consortium's Tracking Protection Working Group, which was established in the fall of 2010 following a mandate from the FTC, was to officially end its process today, July 31.

Of course, the W3C TPWG was also supposed to officially end its process in January 2012, April 2012, and October 2012. Now, according to today's version of the group's website, the new end date is April 30, 2014.

Last night, perhaps the best-known privacy advocate involved in this process -- certainly the one who has been most publically skeptical of the other sides' motives -- said enough was enough and tendered his resignation. In his note, Stanford doctoral candidate Jonathan Mayer wrote:

We first met to discuss Do Not Track over 2 years ago. We have now held 10 in-person meetings and 78 conference calls. We have exchanged 7,148 emails. And those boggling figures reflect just the official fora.

The group remains at an impasse. We have sharpened issues, and we have made some progress on low-hanging fruit. But we still have not resolved our longstanding key disagreements, including: What information can websites collect, retain, and use? What sorts of user interfaces and defaults are compliant, and can websites ignore noncompliant browsers?...

We have reached the end of July. There is no light at the end of the tunnel. A glance at our issue tracker confirms scant progress.... Given the lack of a viable path to consensus, I can no longer justify the substantial time, travel, and effort associated with continuing in the Working Group.

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