Mediator Appointed in 'Do Not Track' Efforts

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Over the last few months, an international effort to give consumers more control over the collection of their online data has devolved into acrimonious discussions, name-calling and witch hunts.

The idea was to work out a global standard for "Do Not Track," a computer browser setting that would allow Internet users to signal Web sites, advertising networks and data brokers that they do not want their browsing activities tracked for marketing purposes.

But some industry executives involved in the negotiations have questioned the agenda of privacy advocates, saying their efforts threaten to undermine an advertising ecosystem that fuels free online products and services. At the same time, some technology experts and privacy advocates have accused industry executives of stalling and acting in bad faith.

Into this rancorous battle steps a new mediator, Peter Swire, a professor of law at Ohio State University and a former White House privacy official during the Clinton administration. On Wednesday, the World Wide Web consortium, or W3C, the international consortium that has been trying to develop technical "Do Not Track" standards, said that Mr. Swire would take over as co-chairman of its Tracking Protection Working Group.

While parties on both sides welcomed the move, many said they were doubtful that Mr. Swire could bring opponents to agreement, especially at a time when some industry groups are questioning whether the W3C is an appropriate forum.

On one hand, industry executives have an interest in protecting "behavioral" ads, marketing pitches that use data about an individual's online activities in order to tailor ads to that person. On the other hand, consumer advocates argue that Internet users should be able to limit that kind of online surveillance.

Mr. Swire, a former chief counselor for privacy at the Office of Management and Budget, said he hoped to strike a balance that was palatable to both sides. He said he viewed a "Do Not Track" system as a kind of digital equivalent to the "Do Not Call" list, a national registry in the United States through which consumers may opt out of phone solicitations.

"People can choose not to have telemarketers call them during dinner. The simple idea is that users should have a choice over how their Internet browsing works as well," Mr. Swire said in a phone interview. But he added: "The overarching theme is how to give users choice about their Internet experience while also funding a useful Internet."

Still, Mr. Swire may not be able to overcome the bitterness that remains among the negotiating parties after months of public accusations, personal attacks and recriminations.

Earlier this year at an event at the White House, industry representatives publicly committed to incorporating and honoring a browser-based "Do Not Track" system under certain conditions. The conditions included a requirement that individual users would actively choose to turn on a don't-track-me setting. Industry groups also said any system should still permit companies to collect information about users' browsing activities for market research and product development purposes.

But after months of wrangling with consumer advocates, industry representatives now say the W3C is not an appropriate forum for them to work out policy details, arguing that the group's expertise is more technical than practical.

In an online discussion forum for the working group, for example, senior industry executives have suggested that respected technology experts are out of touch with commercial reality.

"The advocacy side of the group tends to lean toward absolutist terms and solutions," Shane Wiley, the vice president for privacy and data governance at Yahoo, wrote in a message in September to Ed Felten, a professor of computer science and public affairs at Princeton University. "The real world isn't that easy even if it feels that way in a classroom or a small lab."

Then there are the technologists who say industry executives are playing down the privacy risks of online data-mining.

"For want of a better metaphor: you are the climate change skeptic of computer privacy," Jonathan Mayer, a graduate student in computer science and law at Stanford University, wrote last month to Yahoo's Mr. Wiley. "Unlike some of the more patient members of the group, I long ago ceased pretending you're negotiating in good faith."

Now the industry has begun an effort to distance itself from the W3C process and promote its own self-regulatory program that allows consumers to decline targeted advertising by installing opt-out buttons from dozens of member companies.

"We've seen the W3C falter," said Mike Zaneis, the general counsel for the Interactive Advertising Bureau, an industry trade group. "So industry is redoubling its efforts to come up with a meaningful standard for browser controls."

As the debate rages on, newer iterations of popular browsers like Microsoft's Internet Explorer and Google's Chrome have already installed "Do Not Track" settings for their users. But, in the absence of accepted global standards for these systems, ad networks and data brokers are not yet honoring the don't-track-me browser flags. Even Microsoft's and Google's own ad services don't respond to such signals coming from their own browsers.

Although Mr. Swire said he hopes to spur progress, for the moment "Do Not Track" browser settings have no more significance than emoticons.

" 'Do Not Track' is a work in progress," Mr. Swire said. "So is the Internet."

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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