Web users should be able to tell advertising networks not to show them targeted advertisements based on their browsing activities -- and those companies should comply. That is the verdict of the leaders of a working group that has been arguing for almost two years over how to establish a uniform Do Not Track standard for the Internet.
The group has been trying to arrive at a consensus draft document that outlines what it means when a Web user turns on a Do Not Track signal. Still unresolved and a major point of difference among the group's members is whether advertising networks and data brokers should be allowed to collect, retain and categorize that browsing data, using small bits of code and other methods that identify each user.
But the decision on ad targeting moves the group, commissioned by the World Wide Web Consortium, or W3C, a step closer to reaching consensus.
"The public meaning of Do Not Track is to limit behavioral advertising," said Peter P. Swire, a law professor at Ohio State University who is a chairman of the Tracking Protection Working Group, along with Matthias Schunter, principal engineer at the Intel Corporation.
The group's internal disagreements aside, more Americans are turning on the Do Not Track signal. A March 2013 survey by Forrester Research found that 18 percent of Web users had turned on the Do Not Track setting in their browsers.
Forrester said the survey pointed to a greater awareness of behavioral tracking. The survey was commissioned by Neustar, an analytics company.
Nearly all browsers offer consumers the option of a Do Not Track signal -- some turning it on by default -- but it is little more than symbolic. Online advertisers are not required to respect the consumer's request. The advertising industry has argued that behavioral tracking is a necessary part of free Web services; in the latest of several proposals, it sought to use behavioral data after scrubbing out certain information.
That approach was rejected by the group's chairmen. It had been vigorously opposed by a host of consumer groups and companies that are among the group's 110 members. In a decision to be made public on Tuesday, the chairmen say that they will use an earlier draft as the "base text" for discussions, rejecting the advertising industry's proposal.
The Tracking Protection Working Group has argued for nearly two years about establishing a Do Not Track standard. Their arguments are far from over.
One set of objections comes from representatives of the digital advertising industry. They said on Monday that consensus would be hard to reach because many issues remained unresolved.
"We are always going to participate in an effort to get something that is meaningful, makes sense and continues to preserve the benefits to consumers in products and services that our members offer," said Stuart P. Ingis, a lawyer representing the Digital Advertising Alliance, an industry body. "But participating in a process and agreeing to a failed standard are two different things."
The advertising industry has been particularly exercised by the fact that browser makers like Microsoft are increasingly turning on the Do Not Track signal by default, rather than leaving it to consumers to activate the signal.
The working group also faces resistance from consumer advocates who contend that the latest proposal does little to assure Web users that their browsing history will not be collected and retained for indefinite periods of time. "We think Do Not Track should mean 'You can't collect information on users and you can't retain information,' " said Dan Auerbach, a staff technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
The current draft, which is the basis of current negotiations, provides that companies should avoid "unique identifiers for users or devices if alternative solutions are reasonably available." That, critics say, is far too vague.
"On substance, with a great deal of additional work issue-by-issue, it is not impossible to make this draft work, perhaps in 2014," Aleecia McDonald, director of privacy at the Stanford University Center for Internet and Society, said on the working group's comment page.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.