Privacy Update: Yahoo Ditches Do Not Track, White House Releases Privacy Report

yahoo-back-trackingTwo years ago, Yahoo became the first big Internet company honor Do Not Track (DNT) signals, and on Wednesday it became the first to publicly abandon the troubled opt-out standard.

The company told the world via a Tumblr post on the Yahoo Public Privacy blog that it would henceforth ignore DNT requests, saying “we have yet to see a single standard emerge that is effective, easy to use and has been adopted by the broader tech industry.”

Separately the White House has released a long-expected report analyzing the uses of tracking by Web giants, advertisers and others. Spearheaded by White House adviser John Podesta, the report takes note of new tracking methods emerging in the mobile arena, and it recommends the revival of a “Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights” governing uses of consumer data. 

The developments suggest the slow gears of privacy policy may be turning in a new direction, away from a desktop- and cookie-centric debate toward one that takes into account the explosion of mobile devices and data sources.

Yahoo Dumps DNT

Yahoo’s disavowal comes several years into the DNT standard-making process, which has been plagued with acrimony and setbacks. These include withdrawals of privacy advocates and the Digital Advertising Alliance (DAA) from the World Wide Web Consortium’s DNT working group. Meanwhile the DAA, of which Yahoo is a key member, is preparing the ground for a new industry-led, browser-based opt-out mechanism for ad-related tracking, as reported by AdWeek.

Yahoo said in its post:

“As the first major tech company to implement Do Not Track, we’ve been at the heart of conversations surrounding how to develop the most user-friendly standard. However, we have yet to see a single standard emerge that is effective, easy to use and has been adopted by the broader tech industry.

Users can still manage their privacy on Yahoo while benefiting from a personalized web experience. We encourage our users to tailor their online experience through the variety of privacy tools we offer within our own platform, accessible via our Yahoo Privacy Center.”

The decision drew irate response from privacy advocates, including UCLA technologist Christopher Soghoian, who tweeted, “As Yahoo demonstrates, the security teams at tech firms protect your data. The privacy teams protect the companies when they mine your data.”

The seeds of DNT came from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), and were backed by the White House in 2012. But more recently the FTC has seemed less committed to it. In August, FTC chairwoman Edith Ramirez told The Hill she remains “hopeful” the process can be salvaged. “There may be a solution that can be achieved. That doesn’t mean to say that I’m willing to be waiting endlessly,” she said.

While Yahoo has backed out of its commitment to DNT, other Web companies never painted themselves into that particular corner. Neither Facebook nor Google honor DNT signals. Microsoft, meanwhile, has backed the standard, going so far as to make DNT the default standard in the last two versions of Internet Explorer.

White House

Meanwhile, the White House privacy report released Friday examines data collection for purposes ranging from market research to medical analysis to, yes, ad targeting. Here’s what it has to say on the state of the cookie:

“Cookies involve relatively simple pieces of information that proponents represent as unlikely to be abused. Although not always aware of the process, people accept such tracking in return for a free or subsidized service. At the same time, cookie-free alternatives are sometimes available. Even without cookies so-called ‘fingerprinting’ techniques can often identify a user’s computer or mobile device uniquely by the information that it exposes publicly, such as the sizes of its screen, its installed fonts, and other features. Most technologists believe that applications will move away from cookies, that cookies are too simple an idea, and that there are better analytics coming and better approaches being invented.”

The report proposes the creation of consumer-controlled “personal-privacy profiles” that would communicate their tracking wishes. The burden of compliance with these profiles should fall on the company, “with notification to the consumers by a company if their profile precludes that company’s accepting their business.” It’s not clear who would set the standard for these privacy profiles, how they should work and what might save them from the stalemate that seems to have befallen the Do Not Track process.

Mike Zaneis, EVP and general counsel at the Interactive Advertising Bureau, said the IAB is encouraged by the report’s recognition of the benefits of relevant ads. But he sees cause for concern in the White House’s call for a “broad stakeholder reexamination” of big data on the proposed Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights.

“While IAB remains committed to the current multistakeholder process,” Zaneis said, “earlier efforts have not produced legislative proposals, so we disagree with the report’s assumption that this process would necessarily lead to that outcome.  Establishing a legislative goal before clearly identifying the problem and scope of work could set the process up for failure.”

The report comes three months after President Barack Obama, in a speech, conflated the National Security Agency surveillance program with ad industry tracking, saying, “Corporations of all shapes and sizes track what you buy, store and analyze our data and use it for commercial purposes; that’s how those targeted ads pop up on your computer or smartphone.” 

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