Tim Berners-Lee To Decide Fate Of W3C Privacy Group

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The Internet standards group World Wide Web Consortium — which has been trying for two years to come up with privacy standards for online behavioral advertising — remains as hopelessly divided as ever.

The latest conflict centers on whether the group should even continue with the privacy initiative. This week, the W3C polled members of the tracking group to determine whether they wanted to keep going and, if so, how to proceed. The results are completely perplexing.

A slim majority of respondents — 22 out of 43 — voted to continue working with the group. Twenty respondents said that working in the group was “not in their interests,” with 17 of those saying they would prefer to stop work.

That's hardly a ringing mandate. But complicating matters further, a majority of respondents — 26– voted against proceeding under the terms set out in a recent proposal by the group's leaders.

The Center for Democracy and Technology's Justin Brookman, newly appointed co-chair of the group, says in an email to MediaPost that the results are “hard to parse.” He adds that the W3C staff will make a recommendation to Tim Berners-Lee, who will make the ultimate decision.

The W3C's tracking protection working group — made up of Web companies, privacy advocates and researchers — aims to develop standards for interpreting do-not-track signals sent by browsers. All of the major browser companies offer a do-not-track setting, but activating it doesn't stop tracking. On the contrary, publishers and ad networks are free to ignore the signal — and most do.

In the two years that the W3C has worked on the project, the privacy advocates and industry representatives have been unable to agree on what should happen when do-not-track signals are turned on. One major point of contention centers on how much data can be collected from users who say they don't want to be tracked.

Ad companies have said in the past that they will stop serving targeted ads to people who turn on do-not-track, but want to continue gathering data from them. But privacy advocates say that people who activate a do-not-track header do so because they don't want their data collected.

That impasse seems insurmountable to the people who voted to disband — including privacy advocates and industry representatives.

“This proceeding is so flawed–it's a farce,” Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, said in written comments submitted with his vote.

John Simpson of Consumer Watch added: After a good faith effort from participants, it is crystal clear that this working group cannot reach a meaningful consensus … There is nothing dishonorable in admitting our differences are too great to overcome.”

The umbrella ad industry organization Digital Advertising Alliance also voted to disband — despite the fact that the organization resigned from the group last month. Managing director Lou Mastria tells MediaPost that the vote was open to anyone who participated before Aug. 31. “Having said that,” he adds, “the reality is that the lack of progress by the group to date made it difficult for us to continue to commit resources to a process in which parties on all sides agree is not a sensible use of W3C resources and not likely to lead to a workable result.”

But Brookman said in comments submitted to the group that a decision to stop work will likely result in “an escalation in tactics by regulators, browser and OS vendors, consumer groups, and online third parties to either limit or harden online tracking capabilities.”

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