Three federal lawmakers have criticized an Internet standards setting organization’s proposed Do Not Track standard because they say it gives an unfair advantage to some companies and allows them to continue online tracking.
The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Tracking Protection Working Group has been struggling to draft a Do Not Track standard for the past four years. The standard spelling out what must be done to honor a Do Not Trick request when it is received is in the final stages of approval by the group.
Last week Sen. Ed Markey (D-Ma), Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) and Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX) wrote the W3C “expressing concern that its proposed ‘Do Not Track’ standard applies differently to ‘first parties,’ companies that directly face consumers, than to ‘third parties,’ those that facilitate the advertisements displayed online.”
When you go to a specific website, say nytimes.com, that is considered the first party. The entities that serve ads to you on that site and often track you from website to website are called third parties. You don’t really know who they are. Complicating the situation is the fact some companies such as Google function as both first and third parties. Here is the lawmakers’ concern:
Under the proposed W3C standard, first parties are free to continue tracking online activity even if a user activates the “Do Not Track” signal and can share that information among its many affiliates. Third parties, on the other hand, must respect user preference and stop tracking. This distinction gives certain companies, including those that operate as both first and third party businesses, an exemption from what could serve as an important consumer protection and an unfair advantage over companies that better honor consumer rights and expectations.
“The ‘Do Not Track’ standard should empower consumers to stop unwanted collection and use of their personal data. At the same time, the standard should not permit certain companies to evade important consumer protections and engage in anti-competitive practices,” write the three lawmakers in their letter. “We call on the W3C to reexamine its proposal to ensure online companies fulfill user expectations while at the same time encouraging, not limiting, the competitive online marketplace.”
I agree with the lawmakers’ concerns. I also should add that I was part of the W3C Tracking Protection Working Group that is now pushing to complete the Do Not Track standard. When it became clear to me that what was being produced would allow many privacy invasive practices to continue as business as usual, I more or less dropped out of the process.
The fundamental flaw with the W3C Do Not Track standard is that it is entirely voluntary. Nobody has to follow it and likely most companies won’t. Worse, the proposed standard allows many practices that are clearly tracking to continue.
What’s needed is a meaningful standard with the force of law behind it. That’s why we tried to get a Do Not Track law enacted in California. It’s why we have petitioned the FCC for a rulemaking to create regulations that would require Internet “edge” providers like Google and Facebook to honor Do Not Track requests.
Meanwhile, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is offering a carrot and stick approach. It has drafted its own Do Not Track standard that is much tougher then the W3C proposal. It has also released Privacy Badger, a browser extension that blocks content from sites that are tracking you. If someone is determined to be tracking, then their ads don’t get through to you, If a a company agrees to honor EFF’s Do Not Track standard, then they won’t be blocked. We really need a Do Not Track law, but until then you should consider downloading and using Privacy Badger.