Is Do Not Track really headed off the tracks as some recent reports suggest? Well, that depends on which rail line we're talking about. Articles questioning the viability of DNT came during meetings last week of the worldwide web standards body's tracking protection group. More stories followed this week, when a controversial statement from the ad industry coalition that is overseeing a currently-operating self-regulatory privacy effort caused a stir.
There are several players involved and an array of unsettled technical and policy-related minutiae that seems to multiply every time stakeholders meet in the hopes of crossing off bullet points on the DNT to-do list. Some who attended the World Wide Web Consortium's (W3C) meetings in Brussels last week - one of many collectives trying to establish a DNT standard - lamented that new issues were brought to the table while old ones remained contentious.
Others who attended the W3C's Tracking Protection Working Group who met last week in the EU capital say there was progress, however gradual. In some ways the meeting was more productive than others, said Justin Brookman, director for the Center for Democracy and Technology's Project on Consumer Privacy. He suggested progress was made because there was a process identified for settling around six still-debated issues.
Microsoft Controversy a Mere Undercurrent
Yet, according to the attendees whom ClickZ spoke with, a ghostly presence hovering at the large round meeting table was barely acknowledged in discussions: Microsoft's plans to automatically initiate DNT in the new version of its Internet Explorer Browser.
Rather than a contentious point of conversation, "it was kind of an undercurrent in the room that really changes the stakes for everybody," said Mike Zaneis, SVP and general counsel of the IAB. Zaneis, who attended the meeting, said he had expected the topic to be a main point of argumentation. The meeting was one of six face-to-face conventions of the tracking protection group, he said, noting that more DAA members representing their respective trade groups or companies attended this time around than in previous meetings. The W3C also runs a weekly phone conference call.
The IAB is a founding member of the Digital Advertising Alliance (DAA), the ad industry coalition that also includes trade groups like the Direct Marketing Association and American Association of Advertising Agencies. The group made waves this week - even spurring articles in general news outlets such as Fox News - when it told its members that they can disregard DNT signals that are set by default in browsers. It's a direct shot across the bow to Microsoft - a DAA member - which plans to turn on DNT by default in the new version of its Internet Explorer Browser. "Machine-driven do not track does not represent user choice; it represents browser-manufacturer choice," said the DAA in its statement.
Close observers of the DNT process couldn't have been surprised. When Microsoft in June first said it would automatically enable DNT, insiders back then implied that site publishers, ad tech companies, and other third parties could simply ignore the Microsoft signal, rendering it useless.
Microsoft has its own power to wield, though. "If Microsoft feels the header isn't being respected, they'll just turn off third-party cookies or block the [publishers'] content," said Brookman. "I think that would be a bad result." The fact that Microsoft runs an ad network and needs to maintain relationships with ad sellers and buyers would certainly factor into any such decision.
In June, even some privacy wonks suggested that the Microsoft decision was bad because the outcome would be exactly what has happened - the industry has chosen to ignore it. The often misunderstood reality of current DNT mechanisms is that in order to function they must be acknowledged by the systems that do the digital tracking. In other words, consensus among industry and privacy groups is crucial.
W3C Weighs Need for Consensus
And if the latest W3C meeting is any indication, it will be difficult to achieve consensus. New topics were added to the agenda, leading to new discussions some considered tangents. For instance, some participants questioned whether first parties - think website publishers like Facebook or Yahoo that collect data directly from site visitors rather than through third parties - would still be able to employ their own data on third-party sites even if a user had DNT turned on. That was one of several points that went undecided.
Still debated are issues Brookman said are among a few "core" issues for the W3C group, including how DNT should be implemented in browsers, and whether unique IDs like cookies can still be used to identify things such as click fraud even when a user has DNT turned on. "There are only a handful of really and truly intractable points of disagreement," he said.
Ironically enough, whether or not consensus itself must be achieved has come under debate. Before last week's round of meetings, W3C noted, "During the last meetings, our goal has been to resolve open issues...While we continue pursuing this goal, we will now accept that many issues cannot be resolved in a way that does not raise any objections."
The W3C's initiative is just one aiming to solve DNT, though. Through the DAA, the industry has implemented a self-regulatory privacy program that allows users to disable ad-related tracking through clickable icons that must be visible in all ads served using behavioral and other targeting data. It took years for the ad industry to finally come together to agree that such a program should exist, and then execute it.
Many people are not satisfied with the industry's approach, which mainly deals with tracking related to ad serving and targeting, but fails to address other forms of tracking that also elicit privacy concerns, such as tracking related to site analytics or research.
Industry and U.S. Government Collaborate on DNT, Too
Though it surprised some industry watchers, the DAA bit the DNT bullet in February. The coalition joined with the Federal Trade Commission and the U.S. Commerce Department to develop its own browser-based DNT standard to be honored by all DAA members. The partners have been working with browser companies to make that happen.
"The work has been continuous on the policy impact side," said Rachel Nyswander Thomas, VP government affairs for DAA member organization Direct Marketing Association, referring to the DAA's work with the FTC and Commerce Department. Nyswander Thomas also attended the W3C meetings in Brussels and affirmed that there were more ad industry representatives present there than in previous meetings.
Like others on the industry side, she sees the work of the W3C on DNT as ineffectual if not pointless. Having more industry people at this round of meetings, she said, "was to point out that the DAA has already built this...There is no need for the W3C to reinvent the wheel."
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Kate Kaye was Managing Editor at ClickZ News until October 2012. As a daily reporter and editor for the original news source, she covered beats including digital political campaigns and government regulation of the online ad industry. Kate is the author of Campaign '08: A Turning Point for Digital Media, the only book focused on the paid digital media efforts of the 2008 presidential campaigns. Kate created ClickZ's Politics & Advocacy section, and is the primary contributor to the one-of-a-kind section. She began reporting on the interactive ad industry in 1999 and has spoken at several events and in interviews for television, radio, print, and digital media outlets. You can follow Kate on Twitter at @LowbrowKate.