The Value of Privacy

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Admen Spot an Enemy: W3C

Advocates say a built-in “Do Not Track” setting could mean more privacy for Web surfers. Opponents say it would be a disaster for online revenues. Which should you believe?


Tracking panel: During a 2011 workshop convened by the W3C, participants discussed proposals for a Do Not Track mechanism for the Web.
Wendy Seltzer

The advertising industry is brawling with some of the biggest names in technology: Microsoft, Mozilla, and the World Wide Web Consortium, the standards body for the Web.

The fight is taking place because the consortium, known as W3C, is developing a new “Do Not Track” standard so Web users can signal that online ad targeting companies should leave them aloneAdvertising industry representatives say the standards-setting process has turned into an existential threat that could mean the end of free online content.

“The ad industry is being asked to honor something that could make the majority of Web users nonmonetizable and put it out of business,” says Mike Zaneis, head of the Office of the Interactive Advertising Bureau in Washington, D.C., which represents over 500 companies that together sell close to 90 percent of online ads in the United States.

Although few Web surfers have heard of it, the W3C has considerable power to shape online life. Founded by the Web’s inventor, Tim Berners-Lee, the international body sets the technology standards and protocols that companies adhere to so that the Web functions smoothly.

The W3C began looking at the idea of Do Not Track last year after two prominent members, Mozilla and Microsoft, implemented versions of the feature in their own Web browsers. In September, the W3C convened an 80-person Tracking Protection Working Group of industry, government, and academic experts to study the question, with the aim of thrashing out a single standard by mid-2012.

That goal now appears unlikely to be met, because the working group has run into major disagreements over how the technical standard could affect the $70-billion-a-year global online advertising market.

The technology of Do Not Track is relatively simple. When a browser accesses a Web page, it could send a signal—a 1 or a 0—to indicate whether the setting is enabled. What the working group hasn’t been able to agree on is precisely how the signal should change the behavior of a page and its advertising technology.

One of the biggest sticking points: what even counts as “tracking.” There’s general agreement that users should be able to block third-party ad companies that record browsing behavior, using that information to serve up so-called targeted ads. However, advertisers insist they must still gather data on how many people—and in some cases which people—have viewed a particular ad on a website.

Some privacy activists in the working group say that allowing such data collection could eviscerate the standard, turning it into a “Do Not Target” technology rather than a means of protection for consumers who don’t want their browsing monitored at all.

The result is a conflict that is pushing the standards body well beyond the nuts and bolts of the Web into hot-button economic and policy issues. “With Do Not Track, the technology issues are the least [of the] concerns,” says Lorrie Cranor, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University who studies privacy technology. “It’s about policy.”

No one seems very happy with the W3C’s progress so far, but the ad industry feels the most aggrieved. Zaneis describes the group’s weekly conference calls and occasional face-to-face meetings as having “a bit of a circus atmosphere.” He and others also say deliberations have been unduly influenced by Mozilla, the nonprofit foundation that markets the Firefox browser.

“Mozilla really runs the working group,” says Zaneis. “They probably see [Do Not Track] as a product differentiator.” Not only did a Mozilla privacy engineer help develop the first prototype for Do Not Track technology, but a foundation executive co-chairs the W3C committee, and its CEO has been a vocal critic of online tracking. (The foundation makes money from search engines such as Google who pay to be featured in Firefox and doesn’t rely directly on targeted ads for revenue.)

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