Privacy Advocates, Online Advertisers Want Online Tracking Talks To End

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Privacy advocates and online advertiser groups called for the end to a process that would create a way for users to opt out of being tracked online

The group, convened by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), voted Wednesday on how the group should move forward after two years of missed deadlines and tense disagreements over creating a Do Not Track (DNT) tool.

For the last several months, some of the group’s members have been questioning the legitimacy of the stalled and contentious process, with some going so far as to withdraw from the group.

On Wednesday, members were asked to choose between the current draft; abandoning the group; changing the timelines for the draft; a less-controversial technical document it's tied to; and getting a Do Not Track tool out now that can be revised later.

Online advertising groups and privacy advocates alike voted that the group should disband. The option to disband was supported by 20 participants and opposed by 22.

Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, called the group’s process “so flawed — it’s a farce.” When it comes to privacy from online tracking, global online users deserve better — from industry, WC3, and also regulators,” he wrote.

“It is crystal clear that this working group cannot reach a meaningful consensus” and “should be disbanded,” John Simpson of Consumer Watchdog wrote. “There is nothing dishonorable in admitting our differences are too great to overcome.”

The Electronic Frontier Foundation “has lost confidence that the process will produce a standard that we would support,” the organization’s senior staff attorney, Lee Tien, wrote. 

“If the group continues, we would seriously consider dropping out,” he said. 

The Direct Marketing Association (DMA), which represents the interests of online advertisers, said the group’s work is “unlikely to result in anything more than an academic, intellectual exercise.”

If the group continues after Wednesday’s poll, the association will continue to participate “in good faith for the foreseeable future in order to ensure that the interests of DMA members are represented,” DMA Vice President of Government Affairs Rachel Thomas wrote.

Others encouraged the group to keep working. Microsoft assistant general counsel Amy Colando said the group should keep working to improve consumer privacy.

“Microsoft’s customers expect strong privacy protections to be built into our technologies, and we believe that DNT holds potential to help them better manage their online privacy,” she wrote.

Now that the poll is closed, the group’s three co-chairmen – Intel’s Matthias Schunte, the recently appointed Justin Brookman from the Center for Democracy and Technology and Carl Cargill from Adobe – and W3C staff will discuss with W3C Director Tim Berners-Lee what to do next.

Brookman and Schunter both said they would support moving forward with the current plan but would prefer finishing a Do Not Track tool in the short term and coming back to deal with the other issues later.

That option offers the group “the possibility of expediting a basic” tool without having “every single thing worked out, while reserving the ability to come back and fine tune later,” Brookman said.

This could “lessen the tension within the group and make the discussion less litigious,” he said. According to the poll, 18 participants support that option, while 24 oppose it.

The two voted against the other options, including giving up on the group. Cargill did not participate in the vote.

W3C CEO Jeff Jaffe, who will be involved in the discussions with Berners-Lee regarding next steps, voted similarly to Brookman and Schunter, saying he would prefer to get a basic Do Not Track tool out now and come back later to make changes if necessary.

“I believe that the broad stakeholders of the web community require a DNT standard,” he said in the poll’s comments. “I know of no other venue where that might take place.”

Mozilla’s Lead Privacy Engineer Sid Stamm voted for the option preferred by the group’s leaders. In his comments, he said that option “not only moves us forward and also gives everyone view of how we're going to make it better.” 

“We've spent a lot of time on it, but it's time to carve out a first version,” he said.

A W3C spokesman said there is not yet a timeline for deciding how to move forward, “but I assume it will be soon.” 

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