Things are heating up in the Do Not Track campaign. Next week, EFF Technology Projects Director Peter Eckersley will be joining Internet engineers, privacy advocates, and industry groups in Washington, DC for intense negotiations around the future of online tracking. Here’s our overview of the latest developments likely to influence the Do Not Track campaign during the crucial upcoming weeks.
W3C Tracking Protection Working Group Convenes in DC
On April 10, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Tracking Protection Working Group will be convening in Washington, DC. The W3C is an international community that develops protocols and guidelines that ensure the long-term growth of the web. Among other things, the Tracking Protection Working Group is charged with defining Internet standards for the Do Not Track flag, whereby a user concerned with protecting personal privacy can use a one-click setting in her browser to set an HTTP header that will tell websites she does not want to be tracked.
The W3C group is engaged in an intricate series of negotiations to achieve consensus around how websites should respond when they receive the Do Not Track header. The April meeting may see some of the most difficult discussions. According to the public schedule, the group will be tackling issues such as the definitional distinction between first- and third-party websites, the types of tracking exemptions necessary for fraud detection and defense, and data usage by first-party websites. Consumer advocates will be pushing to get meaningful standards in place so that individuals can maintain their privacy when they use the web, while some industry participants will likely attempt to include exceptions and loopholes that allow retention and use of large amounts of linkable data from opted-out users.
The W3C process is a multi-stakeholder forum bringing in industry figures and advocacy groups, and the details of meetings and draft documents are posted online for public discussion. This stands in sharp contrast to the decision making process of groups like the Digital Advertising Alliance, which is also concocting standards around the Do Not Track flag. The DAA is an industry-only coalition of the biggest Internet advertisers and is not engaging users, Internet engineers, or advocacy organizations. Similarly, the DAA does not post its draft documents, meetings notes, and other discussion points on the Internet for transparency and discussion. EFF strongly believes that discussions around the Do Not Track flag need to be kept in the open format of the W3C working group.
Yahoo’s “Do Not Track” Leaves Much to Be Desired
Last week, Yahoo committed to supporting the Do Not Track on its sites by early summer—but unfortunately, Yahoo’s conception of Do Not Track is pretty weak when it comes to respecting user privacy. While we appreciate Yahoo’s announcement as a step in the right direction, the commitment, similar to the vague statement put forth by the industry group Digital Advertising Alliance, did not promise to actually reduce the tracking of individuals. Yahoo! merely promised a “Do Not Target,” not a “Do Not Track."
According to the press release, Yahoo! promised to provide a “simple step for consumers to express their ad targeting preferences to Yahoo!” But Do Not Track isn’t about expressing a preference about viewing targeted advertisements; it’s designed to combat the issues of rampant data collection. As we’ve noted before, online tracking companies are embedding pieces of tracking code on websites around the web and using increasingly sophisticated mechanisms for tracking our online reading habits. Even sophisticated users may find it difficult or impossible to fend off these online trackers, and the industry has thus far failed to provide a tenable solution for dealing with this problem. That’s why Do Not Track was invented—to give users a meaningful choice when it comes to fending off online tracking. It’s not merely a mechanism of adjusting the types of ads that are displayed when a user loads a webpage.
IAB President Lashes Out at Do Not Track
At the Interactive Advertising Bureau's (IAB) annual leadership meeting, President and CEO Randall Rothenberg lashed out against the work of Internet engineers and privacy advocates who are working to support Do Not Track. The Interactive Advertising Bureau is a consortium of media and technology companies that, according to their website, are responsible for selling 86% of online advertising in the United States. Dismissing the concerns of advocates and civil libertarians, Rothenberg attacked the W3C process and the Do Not Track flag, warning member companies it could “kill” their businesses.
Rothenberg opened up the conference with a speech encouraging members to educate themselves in the multi-stakeholder process because "political activists have infiltrated" Internet standards bodies like the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). By "political activists," Rothenberg is likely referring to nonprofits working for a free, privacy-protective Internet—like EFF, Center for Digital Democracy, and Mozilla. Rothenberg described this infiltration as a disastrous occurrence. For those that do not educate themselves about the meetings, Rothenberg warned: "what you don't know can hurt you and can kill your company. “
Rothenberg also said that Do Not Track will "create the potential for the global blacklisting of legitimate news." He went on to compare efforts to create strong privacy protections for individual users as "even more threatening to interactive media and commerce than SOPA and PIPA."
Let’s get real: heavy-handed copyright enforcement regimes supported by the MPAA and the RIAA are bad for Internet users. Similarly, ubiquitous, uncontrollable data collection programs by online tracking companies are bad for Internet users. Whether EFF is championing meaningful privacy protections or combating lopsided anti-piracy bills, we’re working to create an Internet for future generations that upholds values of free expression, individual privacy, and innovation. And as long-time Internet champion Prof. Lawrence Lessig articulates quite well, while there are a plethora of laws and technological protections that enforce copyright to the detriment of user experience, there are scant protections for individuals trying to protect their privacy on the Internet. That’s why negotiations around Do Not Track are so vital.
Users are ready for real solutions when it comes to online tracking; a 2012 telephone poll by Pew Research found that 68% of respondents are "not okay" with behavioral advertising. As EFF joins advocates, Internet engineers, and industry groups in discussions next week, we’ll be looking to move the ball forward on meaningful privacy protection so that future generations of Internet users will have the choice to browse the Internet free from electronic trackers.