Is the W3C working group working?
What the W3C's working group was supposed to deliver is that global option -- a choice for users in the form of a universally recognized Do Not Track option that, when turned on, would enable the browser to communicate a Do Not Track signal to publishers and ad distribution networks. The browser vendors were to offer the feature and the working group was to develop the standards dictating what Do Not Track means and how advertisers should respond.
All organizations would then be obligated to honor the user's request, following the specifications laid out by the working group. For instance, Brookman says, "you can't [manually] opt out of every single tracking company. You need a global opt out."
But the effort has bogged down. Since its founding, the working group's membership has ballooned to more than 100 voting participants that represent a wide range of competing constituencies -- including consumers, Web publishers, ad networks, browser vendors, ISPs, cable companies and others.
Until recently, the group hadn't even been able to agree on the basic definitions behind Do Not Track, says group member Mark Groman, president and CEO of the Network Advertising Initiative, a self-regulatory industry association that counts 95 advertising companies as members.
"What does it mean to track -- or not track? What is a first party versus a third party?" And, he adds, does Do Not Track mean "don't gather any information on the user at all," or "don't deliver behaviorally targeted advertising based on that data"?
Last fall, Groman says, they were still having discussions over how to define the words "collection" and "sharing." "That presents a real problem when you're trying to develop a standard," he says.
"Instead of defining what we wanted to control, we delved right into the minutiae," says the IAB's Zaneis. But Brookman, who joined the group in 2011 and became co-chair in September, says the group finally has agreed upon definitions, including the terms "tracking," "collect" and "share." The group has "only a couple unresolved issues that we're working out in the technical document, and then we'll proceed to last call," which is the last opportunity for public input before the standard is approved, he says.
"Perhaps those should have been nailed down earlier, but they are the first things we are settling under the new plan to move forward," he says.
The gathering of some tracking data, such as screen resolution, IP address and referring URL, is required for the basic operation of the Web. But how much information is acceptable to users, and needed or just wanted by the advertisers who are funding commercial websites? "We're trying to walk through what is the least amount you can collect and retain while still allowing the third-party ad ecosystem to work," Brookman says.
"We don't need to tell the Web server nearly so much as we do right now," says Jonathan Mayer, a Stanford University grad student and former working group member. "We can limit it to the bare bones required for the Internet to do its thing."
Mayer has a strong bias against the retention of tracking data by third-party ad networks and has been at the center of some of the more contentious exchanges within the working group. "I don't want companies I've never heard of keeping track of where I go on the Web," he says flatly.
"One side wants the cessation of data collection for any purpose. The other side wants the status quo. It's difficult to rectify those positions, particularly when those tend to be the loudest voices in the room," says Alan Chapell, president of Chapell & Associates, a consumer privacy law firm serving the advertising industry, and working group member.