Industry, Privacy Advocates Offer Competing Views of ‘Do-Not-Track’

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Jeff Chester with the Center for Digital Democracy calls this week’s meeting of the World Wide Web Consortium’s "do-not-track" working group the “privacy showdown at the D.C. corral.”

While it’s unlikely to spark a Wild West gun battle on K Street, the three-day meeting hosted in Washington by Microsoft will highlight the broad differences between what online advertisers and privacy advocates believe a do-not-track option should mean to Internet users.

In its December 2010 draft report on consumer privacy, the Federal Trade Commission endorsed the idea of giving consumers a way to opt out of having data collected about them as they surf the Internet, and having that information used to deliver personalized ads to them. Polls show consumers are very concerned about their personal privacy given the increasing value marketers, advertisers, and others are putting on data collected from consumers online.

With the release of its final privacy report last month, the FTC provided more detail on what it views as an acceptable do-not-track option. FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz believes that do-not-track should mean that consumers are opting out of having information collected about them as they surf the Web with a few limited exceptions, such as for fraud prevention or website functionality. Figuring out what those exceptions should be is one of the key issues the World Wide Web Consortium, or W3C, is trying figure out this week as it seeks to develop technical standards for a do-not-track option. This week’s meeting is one in a series aimed at developing agreement among Internet technical experts, privacy advocates and industry representatives on a common do-not-track standard that can be used by Web browsers, online advertisers, and others.

The group is considering a number of proposals including one developed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Mozilla, which makes the Firefox Internet browser, and another drafted by a group of online-ad industry representatives. The industry proposal includes more exceptions for tracking than the EFF/Mozilla plan by allowing for collection of information from Internet users for “product improvement” and “research & market analytics.”

John Simpson with Consumer Watchdog, which along with Chester’s group and other privacy advocates is backing the EFF/Mozilla proposal, argues that the industry’s proposal “has so many loopholes it’s meaningless.”

But Mike Zaneis with the Interactive Advertising Bureau, which represents media companies, major Internet advertisers, and online ad networks such as Google and Yahoo, argued that the industry’s proposal would still bar companies from collecting data and using it to market products to consumers. IAB is part of the Digital Advertising Alliance, which has developed a self-regulatory privacy program. The DAA recently said it would honor consumers’ do-not-track preferences but it is unclear to what extent it would refrain from collecting data online about consumers.

Zaneis said his group wants to ensure that the W3C keeps its focus on setting technical standards and “does not wander into a policy debate.”

The W3C meeting runs until Thursday and many participants said it is unlikely the group will agree on a proposal this week.

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