Privacy Advisor

Is This the End for DNT? DAA Pulls Out of W3C Process

September 17, 2013

By Sam Pfeifle
Publications Director

In a letter sent this morning to Jeff Jaffe, CEO of the World Wide Web Consortium, the Digital Advertising Alliance announced that it is withdrawing “from future participation in the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Tracking Protection Working Group (TPWG). After more than two years of good-faith effort and having contributed significant resources, the DAA no longer believes that the TPWG is capable of fostering the development of a workable ‘Do-Not-Track’ (DNT) solution.”

The letter, signed by DAA Executive Director Lou Mastria, goes on to say that the DAA has immediate plans to convene its own process and forum—which Mastria told The Privacy Advisor is scheduled for October 10 in San Francisco—for evaluating “how browser-based signals can be used meaningfully to address consumer privacy.” That process, Mastria wrote, will include browsers manufacturers, consumer groups, advertisers, marketers, agencies and technologists and “will be a more practical use of our resources than to continue to participate at the W3C.”

This is the latest in a series of setbacks for the TPWG. Already, in March, when the W3C extended the TPWG’s charter through 2014, there were calls for the group to stop its work. By May, the grumbling was louder, with indication that the group was at loggerheads over “default settings and what data may be collected after a DNT signal is activated.”

But there were some indications of hope in June, with a new draft put forward and accepted and a deadline set for July.

Unfortunately, the DAA drafted a counterproposal, which was rejected, and then the July deadline came and went without any progress. The “talks have turned so acrimonious that it seems unlikely the group will ever agree,” then-TPWG Chair Peter Swire, CIPP/US, said at the time.

In early August, Stanford’s Jonathan Mayer left the group, seemingly in agreement with Swire’s sentiment, and leaving behind him a stinging rebuke: “We do not have a credible timetable—and we’ve just adjourned for a month. We do not have a definitive base text. We do not have straightforward guidelines on what amendments are allowed…This is not process: This is the absence of process.”

Then, of course, Swire left for a new gig at the White House, and the TPWG found itself without leadership, without momentum and, now, without the participation of the DAA.

“Today,” wrote Mastria in his letter, “parties on all sides agree that the TPWG is not a sensible use of W3C resources and that the process will not lead to a workable result.”

Swire would seem to agree. In a response to Mastria posted earlier today to the TPWG participants, he wrote, “My own view is that the Working Group does not have a path to consensus that includes large blocs of stakeholders with views as divergent as the DAA, on the one hand, and those seeking stricter privacy rules, on the other. I devoted my time as co-chair to trying to find creative ways to achieve consumer choice and privacy while also enabling a thriving commercial Internet. I no longer see any workable path to a standard that will gain active support from both wings of the Working Group.”

While the DAA and Swire may continue to disagree on just what caused the TPWG to fail—DAA blames process and Swire particularly; Swire seems to imply the DAA were given every chance to participate but were obstinate—the question now looms as to what will become of the concept of Do Not Track.

All of this essentially came at the urging of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Former FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz originally endorsed an industry-led DNT solution but said at the time that regulations would be needed if industry couldn’t work things out for itself. Similarly, current FTC Chair Edith Ramirez told The Hill a few weeks back, “There may be a solution that can be achieved. That doesn't mean to say that I'm willing to be waiting endlessly.”

With DNT efforts by the W3C now so publicly stalled and broken, will legislation like that proposed by Sens. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) requiring the FTC “to prescribe regulations regarding the collection and use of personal information obtained by tracking the online activity of an individual, and for other purposes” find traction in Congress? The bill currently sits with the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation in the Senate, where no action has been taken since its second reading in the spring.

Further, the FTC is clearly taking an active interest in online advertising. It announced this week it will hold a workshop December 4 on “the blurring of digital ads with digital content” as just one most-recent example.  

The DAA isn’t ready to abandon all hope for a non-regulatory solution. Rather, it is putting stock in a new process with the aforementioned participants including manufacturers, consumer groups, advertisers, marketers, agencies and technologists.

“We are convening an initial meeting with a cross-section of stakeholders on October 10 in San Francisco,” Mastria told The Privacy Advisor. “Our goal will be to develop workable process designed to achieve consensus, rather than deepen differences. While it is still very early in the process, this is a high priority for DAA, and we will continue to provide additional details in the coming weeks.”


Read More By Sam Pfeifle:
A Look at the Future of Privacy Notices (If They Have a Future)
Skepticism Surrounds NSA Review; Massive “Black” Budget Revealed
A Turbulent Time for Gathering Privacy Commissioners
PCLOB to U.S. Intelligence: Update Data-Gathering Guidelines Now