New W3C Group Aims To Dial Back The Rhetoric And Get Practical About Post-Cookie Tech

The new W3C Private Advertising Technology Community Group will incubate tech solutions that make online advertising work better without hurting privacy.

It’s time to stop talking and start doing.

That’s the raison d’être, in a nutshell, behind a new community group housed within the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).

The Private Advertising Technology Community Group (PAT-CG), as it’s called, debuted in October at TPAC, an annual get-together for all of the groups within the larger W3C community. Its first official meeting will take place either during the first or second week of February.

PAT-CG sprang forth as the brainchild of Mozilla, maker of the Firefox browser, to serve as a more streamlined forum for hashing out constructive technology solutions that make online advertising work better without skimping on privacy.

But wait … isn’t that what the Improving Web Advertising Business Group (IWABG) is supposed to do? Or the Privacy Community Group? Or the Technical Architecture Group’s Privacy Model Task Force?

Martin Thomson, a distinguished engineer at Mozilla who helped get PAT-CG off the ground, says he gets those questions a lot.

Focus, people

And the answer is simple: scope.

PAT-CG’s focus will be narrow and limited by design. There hasn’t been much progress for third-party cookie alternatives within other W3C groups partly because advertising either isn’t their main focus or the conversation is bogged down in tense, nuanced policy debates, and often both at once.

For example, although Privacy Community Group members are discussing a few ad-related proposals, including Apple WebKit’s Private Click Measurement, the group has a much broader mission to develop privacy-focused web standards and APIs writ large – meaning advertising isn’t a top priority.

And over at the IWABG, tensions have been running high since the beginning because many ad tech company members grumble that Chrome engineers dominate the discussion and seem uninterested in the workings of the ad-supported internet.

“One of our main goals with this group is to try and carve off a small focus area,” Thomson said. “We’re not here to have some broader discussion about whether there should even be advertising, which tends to get emotional. We’re here to build a community.”

Agree to disagree

It still won’t be easy to reach consensus, acknowledged Sean Turner, PAT-CG’s co-chair and founder of sn3rd (pronounced “snerd”), which helps companies design and implement security solutions. But achieving consensus is doable if the members are reasonable and work together.

“Consensus means you don’t have to love everything about what a proposal is trying to solve, but you can live with it,” Turner said. “If we can all agree that there’s a problem and that we want to solve that problem, then there will always be a way forward.”

Comic: Faster! Faster!Turner, who is co-chairing PAT-CG along with Aram Zucker-Scharff, engineering lead for privacy and security compliance at The Washington Post, is no stranger to calming frazzled nerves at the W3C. He also serves as the chair of the W3C’s Web Real-Time Communications Working Group, where it was his responsibility to soothe tensions between Google and Cisco as they developed a standard video codec.

“Having already been involved in other contentious debates in large groups, I’m cautiously optimistic about what we can do here,” Turner said. “And I personally don’t have a particular axe to grind – I just want everything done in an open way so that everyone feels empowered that they’re solving the problem. Now we just need to define the problem.”

On the agenda

PAT-CG’s membership includes a cross-section of browser makers, advertisers, ad buyers, publishers and ad networks. Community groups at the W3C are open to anyone who wants to join. The hope is that everyone has a voice rather than just the browsers or just the vendors.

One of the first orders of business in February will be to establish a set of common definitions for the terms that’ll be in regular use, like “global identifier” and first party versus third party, as well as clearly setting out the questions that need to be answered.

The group will then discuss various privacy-preserving advertising proposals, some of which are already out there – like FLoC, GARUDA, TURTLEDOVE and PARAKEET – and some new ones, including measurement-focused proposals like Interoperable Private Attribution (or IPA – beer this time, not birds!), a proposal for privacy-preserving attribution authored by Mozilla’s Thomson and two Meta engineers, Erik Taubeneck and Ben Savage.

In a tweet in October, Savage noted that “going forward, all Facebook proposals will be brought to the PAT-CG.”

With more of a partnership (and less of a partisan) atmosphere, maybe there can be progress.

“When you have such a diversity of viewpoints coupled with strong opinions, it tends to muddy the waters, and so the community has had a little trouble aligning,” Thomson said. “But if we can agree on a set of principles and build community around the work, I think we can make something everyone can get behind rather than having what are, perhaps, more abstract and disconnected discussions.”

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