New California Law May Push Other Do Not Track Efforts

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A new California Do Not Track law will put pressure on other online privacy initiatives, including attempts to develop a tool that would allow users to opt-out of online tracking across the Internet.

The law – which was signed by Gov. Jerry Brown on Friday – requires websites to tell users if and how they can opt-out of online tracking.

Many think the law is likely to push the online advertising industry to engage more seriously in attempts to develop an Internet-wide Do Not Track tool, such as the one being worked on at the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). 

The standards setting body convened a working group two years ago, but the group has gotten bogged down in disputes between privacy advocates and the online advertising industry.

“I think companies having to take a public position on Do Not Track forces them to take the matter more seriously,” according to Justin Brookman, the newly-appointed co-chair of the W3C working group.

Websites that, under the new law, have to tell users they don’t respect Do Not Track signals are “potentially setting themselves up for public criticism,” he said.

“It also signals that if W3C fails, than California may well revisit whether to require substantive adherence to DNT signals.”

Privacy advocates said the new law is good for online privacy but won’t necessarily push the working group over the finish line.

"Anything that focuses public interest on Do Not Track, such as the California law, increases pressure on the [working group] to develop a meaningful standard,” John Simpson, director of Consumer Watchdog’s Privacy Project, said. 

“However, I continue to have doubts that the group is capable of reaching consensus."

The California law should be a wakeup call to the online advertising industry, which has “a major political problem,” Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, said.

Still, Chester said the law is “unlikely” to push the group to an effective Do Not Track tool because “the U.S. consumer data collection lobby believes it has the political might to prevent any serious privacy safeguards.”

Representatives from the online advertising industry say the new law won’t change what happens at the Do Not Track discussions.

The law is “just a mild transparency requirement, nothing else” according to Mike Zaneis, general counsel at the Interactive Advertising Bureau.

The law won’t change the discussions, which are unlikely to produce a meaningful Do Not Track tool, Rachel Thomas, vice president of government affairs at the Direct Marketing Association, said.

“We don’t really have much hope that a standard will come out of the W3C.”

Thomas praised the California law for encouraging self-regulatory  programs like the one run by the Digital Advertising Alliance, which includes Thomas’ group among its members.

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