Dueling Do-Not-Tracks? Does the DAA/IAB Fear of Multi-stakeholder Process Doom Real Privacy Controls?
By: Jeff Chester | Feb 26 2012
Is the development of a global, uniform, and powerful means of protecting some of a users information online about to be derailed? That's certainly a possibility, given this week's White House's endorsement of the Digital Advertising Alliance (DAA) plan to implement its own form of do-not-track (DNT). The ultimate fate of the World Wide Web Consortium's (W3C) own work to create a "tracking-protection" standard--one that would likely be more effective--is in doubt. It's precisely because the DAA and its supporters as Google are afraid of a W3C DNT system that's designed with privacy and consumers in mind that has been the impetus for this new alternative approach. So we may soon two dueling digital DNT systems, each claiming to be the legitimate representative of privacy.
The DAA's DNT initiative appears to be at odds with the Obama Administration's support this week for a "Multi-stakeholder" process designed to foster industry-consumer group agreements on critical privacy issues. The W3C process, which I have been fortunate to be part of over the last several months, is the epitome of such a multi-stakeholder forum. Bringing together leading online ad companies, technologists, academics and consumer and privacy NGOs, the Tracking Protection Group of W3C has been a place where competiting perspectives are discussed in a fair and open manner. There is a unique shared sense of mission to accomplish something meaningful to address tracking--even if the impetus of developing a DNT standard is primarily due to the political pressure felt by the industry coming especually from the EU. The FTC's commitment to DNT also plays a key role, but I believe it's really the EU rules on privacy that is the most important political force shaping the development of DNT.
But regardless of the political motivation, the W3C DNT group is a model of multi-stakeholder dialogue, especially ensuring the consumer and privacy groups play a role in the development of the "specification" (as its called). It's precisely because the W3C DNT group has been working together to create a more effective system that has DAA groups such as the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB/US) scared. Right now, the W3C process (which is still debating all these issues) is aiming to help cut off third party data collection for those consumers who engage a DNT. Such new potential safeguards must terrify companies with huge third party ad networks, such as Google. Not surprisingly (but very disturbingly), the head of the IAB sees the W3C's work on all this as a form of plot against the digital ad industry. The CEO of the IAB Randall Rothenberg, according to CNET: complained that the W3C's process had been "hijacked by people who are reflexively opposed to commerce on the Internet." The forces supporting a broad Do Not Track role are "trying to kill advertising on the Internet," he added...Many parties, including IAB, objected to the name "Do Not Track" for the very reason that it could be interpreted broadly to include more than just targeted ads, according to Rothenberg.
This is an absurd and false notion that Rothenberg and likely others in the DAA have. The W3C appears to be about trying to fairly balance everyone's interests. Everyone understands they can't get what they may want--that a compromise is required that provides as much privacy as possible given the current data tracking/profiling system. The DAA, I fear, is largely focused on ensuring that data collection, profiling and targeting continue unabated--and it has found some success deploying a difficult to see and purposefully flawed "Icon" based system to ward-off the enactment of regulations and legislation. The White House, the FTC, the EU, researchers, and global consumer and privacy NGOs need to ensure that there is support for W3C's work to devise a serious DNT standard. This is a serious public test of whether the Obama Administration is truly committed to meaningful multi-stakeholder negotiations.
Finally, I cannot promise whether the W3C DNT system will be effective. Already, because the FTC dropped the privacy ball on "First" parties, protecting information on such sites is off the table. But what's being discussed on so-called third party data tracking is promising, and a step forward (hence my involvement, despite the extra time it takes. NGO participation in this process is critical). But we are all trying to do our best. Let's hope that it isn't derailed because the real motivation to bless the DAA's DNT system is to help US digital data companies expand their markets abroad, esp. in Asia Pacific, without ensuring serious consumer privacy safeguards.
PS: It's worth noting this revealing excerpt from a 2011 IAB (US) post from one of their public policy council members. It discusses DNT as "draconian" and labels consumers as "lost." Here it is: Perhaps the most dangerous impact of a formal DNT, is that it becomes a mass invite to the passive majority to participate in a discussion about complicated and personal value propositions on false pretenses. If you ask the Great Lost Consumer if they want to be tracked, the answer is no. If you ask her if they prefer customized content and advertising, the answer is yes. We would therefore expect for a great portion of the population to sign up for DNT and to be frustrated by the results. If they reverse their decision, they are back where they started, no more informed and sour on the whole experience. The consumer also expects the content they consume to continue unabated, but the networks and data companies that would be most impacted by a DNT list, are precisely the companies that small and medium sized web sites rely upon to compete with the biggest players. The top companies have 1st party relationships with the consumer and massive scale. If smaller sites can’t pool their audiences leveraging 3rd party technologies, they will wither and die. DNT relies on the false promise of a privacy ‘on-off’ switch, and encourages the masses to make a blunt decision, without context, with massive negative impact on industry that will circle back to the consumer...