Do Not Track Standards Not Settled in W3C Meetings

The European Commission said preventing Microsoft from automatically blocking tracking of Internet Explorer users could distort the market. A letter sent to the Worldwide Web Consortium last week came as the organization convened for meetings over three days to discuss details of would-be global Do-Not-Track standards. Coincidentally, members met at Microsoft’s Bellevue, Washington offices.

Microsoft at the end of May shocked the online ad industry and privacy advocates with news that it will automatically enable Do-Not-Track – or DNT – for users in version 10 of IE. Advertisers and ad tech firms lamented the potentially damaging impact of the move on common digital tracking and ad targeting. Some privacy advocates expressed concern that the industry as a whole may simply ignore the DNT signal sent out by IE, in part because many believe users should be the ones to choose to enable DNT.

As expected, Microsoft’s decision to implement DNT by default was a topic of debate at the W3C meetings last week.

“People were fairly animated about it,” said Justin Brookman, a participant in the W3C Tracking Protection Working Group who attended the meetings. Though the group had other subjects on the agenda, Brookman suggested the Microsoft issue got attention the first day of the three-day summit. Brookman is also director of consumer privacy at the Center for Democracy and Technology.

In the end, little came of the discussions about the Microsoft decision, he told ClickZ last week.

Meanwhile, the European Commission aimed to influence the meetings. “[It] is not the Commission’s understanding that user agents’ factory or default setting necessarily determine or distort owner choice,” noted Robert Madelin, director general for information society and media in the European Commission in a June 21 letter to the tracking group. “The specification need not therefore seek to determine the factory setting and should not do so, because to intervene on this point could distort the market.”

Madelin also recommended that standards devised by W3C “should foresee that at the install or first use of the browser the owner should be informed of the importance of their DNT choice, told of the default setting and prompted or allowed to change that setting.”

Not only did W3C working group participants fail to come to a conclusion about whether Microsoft’s DNT by default should be allowed, Brookman said other points of contention were not settled. The group has agreed that DNT must reflect a user preference, Brookman said in an email sent to ClickZ today. “The question is (1) how prescriptive the spec gets on what the user interface needs to look like and (2) what to do about browsers/user agents that don’t comply.”

Participants “are still fighting about” what form users’ DNT settings should take. They also were unable to agree on whether cookies can be used for operational purposes when DNT is turned on, said Brookman.

“They were not able to forge the grand compromise they were hoping to,” he said.

The next W3C meeting is in about a month, Brookman said, stressing, “No one’s walking away from the table.”

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