Leadership change at W3C’s Do Not Track effort reveals lack of online industry commitment to protect Internet privacy

As has been reported, Aleecia McDonald from Mozilla will step down today as Co-Chair of the W3C’s Tracking Protection Working Group.  Peter Swire, a highly regarded law professor specializing in privacy, will replace her.

But this transition is more than just a personnel change.  It reflects a “multistakeholder” process in turmoil.    In the WC3, leading online industry companies and their trade groups are unwilling to develop a meaningful proposal that would enable Internet users better protect their privacy.   Many DNT Working Group members from industry continue to challenge the very concept of why there should be a Do Not Track system at all.   US online advertising and marketing trade groups now argue that all of advertising and marketing should be exempt from any Do Not Track system.  A number of companies on the Working Group have been unwilling to provide technical information to bolster their claims that current business practices cannot live with a robust DNT system.  Other WG companies that have offered greater DNT controls are excoriated.  And there has often been very bitter and contentious behavior exhibited in the group towards individuals seen as more supportive of an effective DNT system.

The failure of the W3C’s effort, however, needs to be seen in the context of the privacy debate.  First, it was foolish to ever assume that a technical standards group consisting of large online industry companies and groups would adopt a standard that would challenge its fundamental business model of pervasive data collection.  That is really the classic “Fox-in the digital hen house” paradigm.  Another element contributing to its current impasse is that in the W3C DNT effort, privacy and consumer NGOs are a tiny handful—with drastically limited resources.  In addition, both the FTC and EU needed to play a more proactive role to promote an effective compromise.  The failure of government agencies to engage the companies on the W3C has led to its current dysfunction and potential failure.

This episode also raises the key question about the role of “multistakeholder” initiatives relied on to address privacy concerns, including the Obama Administration’s current effort overseen by its Department of Commerce.  It is impractical and poor public policy to turn over a crucial civil liberties and consumer protection issue to a group primarily led by powerful commercial vested interests, in the absence of independent fact-finding and analysis, and where NGOs representing the public are marginalized.

Aleecia McDonald is a remarkable leader.  A privacy scholar, technology expert, and effective and skilled group organizer, Aleecia brought to the W3C a rare combination of knowledge, commitment, and collegiality.  She will remain a member of the Working Group, which will be important for privacy.