April 16, 2012 | By Peter Eckersley

Will Industry Agree to a Meaningful Do Not Track?

The fifth W3C meeting on Do Not Track was held in Washington DC last week. While progress has been made on many aspects of the standard for Do Not Track, several deep disagreements remain between privacy advocates and representatives of the online tracking industry.

Most seriously, ad industry representatives maintain that they need to be allowed to continue setting third-party tracking cookies on browsers that send the Do Not Track HTTP header. This coalition of companies say they "only" want to track opted-out users for security purposes, market research, testing and improving their various advertising and tracking products, auditing, copyright enforcement and other "legal compliance" purposes, and "frequency capping" in order to manage online advertising campaigns — but not any other purposes.

Privacy advocates have offered to make enormous concessions in order to make Do Not Track adoption practical for Internet advertisers. Most extremely, this could allow companies to retain IP addresses and User Agents for short periods — and for a number of months in order to defend against clickfraud, "impression fraud," and security attacks, provided it is kept separate from other data.1

Despite these extreme concessions, most of the third-party tracking companies in the W3C process have demanded the right to keep setting unique ID cookies and using them for almost any purpose. Unless this situation changes, the W3C will be unable to set a policy standard for "Do Not Track" that actually offers any meaningful privacy for Internet users' reading habits.

In short, industry is trying to twist "Do Not Track" around so that it only means "Do Not Target". If things turn out that way, Internet users who do not want their online reading habits recorded by invisible tracking companies will have only one choice: use ad blocking tools to stop online tracking code themselves. In order for this to work, they will have to block a huge portion of the advertising on the Web, too.

  • 1. These practices are already used by some ad companies, but many others lag behind.

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