An Inside Look At The W3C With Strategy Lead Wendy Seltzer, As Debate Swirls Around The Privacy Sandbox

Wendy Seltzer, counsel and strategy lead, W3C

There’s been kerfuffle after kerfuffle (after kerfuffle) at the World Wide Web Consortium since Google first announced its plans in January 2020 to kill off third-party cookies in Chrome.

At the time, Google encouraged ad tech companies to join the W3C’s Improving Web Advertising Business Group (IWABG) as a way to provide feedback on and contribute to the proposals in the Privacy Sandbox.

But the sailing hasn’t always been smooth. As early as April of last year, ad tech companies started panicking about the slow progress toward third-party cookie alternatives and worried their points-of-view weren’t being considered by Chrome engineers.

Presiding calmly over the chaos is Wendy Seltzer, counsel and strategy lead at the W3C. As chair of the IWABG, she helps to guide the conversation as technologists with very different views meet weekly via teleconference and try to hash out their differences on GitHub.

“I think they’ve been very constructive discussions,” Seltzer said. “It’s natural in the standards process when we have a bunch of parties with different interests, many of whom are competitors with one another, trying to talk about common needs that sometimes there will be conflicts.”

Seltzer spoke with AdExchanger.

AdExchanger: What level of consensus needs to be reached before a proposal is recommended to become a web standard?

WENDY SELTZER: Our guide is that consensus is not unanimity but rather the absence of sustained objections that don’t have a reasoned response. Anytime someone raises a formal objection in the process, whether to a chartering group or by publishing a document draft or the publication of a recommendation, that causes a review. Was the objector listened to, were they given a response and was it a meaningful discussion?

At the point when people behind a proposal think [its] prospects are good, the proponents can draft a charter and propose it to the W3C membership.

Do you think that will happen with the Privacy Sandbox proposals?

I would expect for some pieces of the Privacy Sandbox to seek to be standards, but there are a lot of components. I’m not sure whether [Google sees] all of them as things that should be done web-wide as standards or just some of them.

What happens if W3C members don’t reach consensus about the Privacy Sandbox proposals?

We can’t force anyone to do anything. We look for places where we can help find consensus. It’s really trying to find the things that serve the interests of everyone participating and that give everyone a win in the process.

But is it your sense that Google’s end goal is to push for the Privacy Sandbox proposals to become standards? There are cynics who think Google just wants to appear as if they’re engaged in collaboration and debate.

I can’t speak for Google, but I think a lot of people see value in standards as making the web work better. And as a company that builds so much of its value on the web and interconnected information, making sure that the internet remains a place where people can publish information that is readable on any browser and any device ... is bigger than the Chromium platform or the Google ad network.

There really is a growing-the-pie opportunity. If we make the web work better, everyone gets a bigger slice.

Is there concern that we’re going to end up with a splinternet of large individual companies that don’t wait for consensus?

Those of us who were on the web when sites would display the “best viewed in IE6” badge could see that there was already some splintering happening.

I do think the value of one web and of interconnections – the scaled network effect – is real and that it pushes towards standardization, whether de facto or through a standards process.

Is the Privacy Sandbox the most politicized topic you’ve dealt with at the W3C in recent memory?

The last time that the W3C tried to do something with regards to tracking and prevention it was when the tracking prevention networking group tried to standardize Do Not Track, and we got into some heated debates. I’m hopeful we can keep the heat lower this time.

The discussions related to Do Not Track certainly got further into that than some of our other spec work.

Do you think cooler heads really will prevail this time around?

The conversations are cooler, maybe in part because it’s the pre-standard phase. We are not yet at the decision making stage.

There’s been a lot of back and forth and skepticism about Google’s claim that FLoC is 95% effective. What role can the W3C play in ensuring that scientific processes are used when evaluating proposals?

At the proposal phase, I don’t think we’ve been asked to do an analysis or intervene in the discussion. If something were in a working group and a test result was being advanced as a reason to override an objection or a reason to call consensus on a contested feature, then the W3C as such, the director, might be called to review that evidence. But even then, the director acts mostly by asking the community to present the evidence and make the arguments.

We aim to use transparency and test-driven development and we ask that of our participants as well.

What is the absolute quickest a Privacy Sandbox proposal could complete the process to become an actual web standard?

If you go for rapid consensus at every phase, you could get through in six months with the various reviews and royalty-free patent exclusion periods.

But I’m not aware of any specs that have gone from a first public working draft to recommendation in under a year, and I’m not even sure if there are any that have done it in a year.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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