The ‘Explainer’: This Week’s ‘Do-Not-Track’ Meeting

explainerThis week a key meeting of the Tracking Protection Working Group convenes under the umbrella of the Worldwide Web Consortium (W3C) standard-making body. Among the TPWG’s tasks is to agree on how browsers will offer users “choice” around tracking and how those choices will be expressed to websites.

If you’re vaguely aware that this session is in process, but don’t grasp the particulars, we’re here to help.

Who, What, Where

By design, the TPWG represents the full spectrum of stakeholders, including browser makers, publishers, ad industry associations, and privacy advocates. Its individual members are largely legal, technical, and privacy wonks.

This week’s meeting is just the latest in a long series of teleconferences and face-to-face sessions, albeit an important one since it’s the first gathering since Microsoft released the preview version of Internet Explorer with DNT turned on by default. It’s being hosted by Microsoft in Seattle, an ironic and urgent backdrop.

Spec Talk

At the heart of the current technical debate is whether browsers should be required to signal to websites that a user has had DNT turned on by default. Some players – among them Yahoo and Google – have argued that websites should not have to honor such signals.

But to know whether they can ignore a signal with “insufficient” user choice associated with it would require a level of technical nuance in how the DNT signal is expressed by browsers. “If you get a signal and you have reason to doubt it, how do you know you have reason to doubt it? That’s an open issue,” W3C’s head of W3C Communications, Ian Jacobs, tells AdExchanger.

The hard stance of the Google/Yahoo contingent may be calculated in part to put pressure on Microsoft to ‘walk back’ its move, and in part to protect the companies’ own ad tracking interests. But the maneuver comes with risk, since ignoring a DNT signal could indicate to the Federal Trade Commission and its European counterpart that self-regulation is failing, thus creating momentum for privacy legislation affecting online advertising.

Regulators Are Watching

Representatives of both the FTC and the European Commission have sent letters to the WWDC this week, staking out their positions. The EC’s is the more urgent of the two. Robert Madelin, director general for information society and media, wrote today, “An early DNT deployment will be good,” a nod to the fact that the deadlines for European countries to implement the continent’s cookie law are already upon them.

Madelin continues, significantly, “The standard should foresee that at the install or first use of the browser the owner should be informed of the importance of their DNT choice, told of the default setting and prompted or allowed to change that setting.”

The EC is keen on an explicit DNT prompt within browsers in part because it would be consistent with the EU cookie directive, whose language calls for users to give direct consent before they can be tracked using cookie technology. (However, it has since softened its guidance to say, “implied” consent may be adequate permission for websites to continue dropping cookies.)

Industry Aligns Behind Proposal

In a list-serve discussion between members of the TPWG, a number of industry players have thrown their support behind a single proposal [download] drafted by representatives of Yahoo, Google, the Network Advertising Initiative, and data/privacy consultant Chappell & Associates. Since then other TPWG members on the advertising side, including ValueClick and the Interactive Advertising Bureau, have endorsed it.

The document preserves the right to ignore DNT signals turned “on” by default. “In those cases where a User Agent [browser] is known to have not allowed an explicit choice by a user, Servers have the option to let the user know they will not honor the DNT signal from that User Agent.”

Hurry Up And Wait

European regulator Madelin is likely to be disappointed in his expectation of time urgency. Even if industry stakeholders can agree on a standard approach for how a “tracking opt-out” should be activated and interpreted by websites – a tall order in itself – it’s unlikely that an industry-wide standard will be finalized during the three day meeting.

That’s because the W3C process requires that working groups, before producing an official standards spec must issue a “last call” for feedback from the larger community of interested parties. That hasn’t happened yet with this working group, and so the process is likely to drag on into the fall.

By Zach Rodgers

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