Is it too late for the W3C’s Do Not Track Measures?

September 25, 2013

After Digital Advertising Alliance (DAA) managing director Lou Mastria pulled out of the Worldwide Web Consortium (W3C) Tracking Protection Working Group on September 17, branding as a failure efforts to

After Digital Advertising Alliance (DAA) managing director Lou Mastria pulled out of the Worldwide Web Consortium (W3C) Tracking Protection Working Group on September 17, branding as a failure efforts to hammer out browser-based do-not-track (DNT) standards, everyone assumed W3C DNT had collapsed. Apparently, the DNT issue was, by default, now in the hands of the U.S. Congress  and Google, both of which seem to have plans to bar and ban third-party cookies—hitherto, the linchpin of online consumer tracking.

So they say W3C efforts to hammer out standards for a browser-based DNT are dead.

Note for the record that the preceding sentence would be bared in American courtrooms as hearsay. There is, however, another statement out of W3C DNT decline that would be admitted into evidence under the “dying declaration” exception.

Let me explain. The American judicial system has inherited from medieval English law the principle that a dying person is not presumed to lie. Despite the departure of DAA, W3C announced two new Tracking Protection Working Group co-chairs—Justin Brookman, director of the Center for Democracy and Technology’s Project on Consumer Privacy, and Carl Cargill, standards principal at Adobe Systems—to join current co-chair Matthias Schunter, chief technologist and principal investigator at Intel. In addition, except for DAA, industry trade groups are hanging on, most notably the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) and the Network Advertising Initiative (NAI). As IAB senior vice president and general counsel explained, “We’ve been told that if we weren’t at the table then other parties would write the standard.”

And that, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, is a dying declaration. We can therefore safely assume that it is not a lie.

Here’s another, from NAI executive director Marc Groman: “Should the NAI withdraw today, the Working Group will be comprised of consumer advocates, U.S and European regulators, and a dozen large, global corporations that sit in a different place in the online advertising ecosystem.”

Again, the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. It’s just too bad that such statements had to await the imminent demise of W3C DNT efforts to be admitted as evidence. Google and governments (U.S. and EU both) already appear on the verge of writing a standard that will give e-advertisers few choices. As AdAge reports, despite the addition of the new co-chairs, the  Tracking Protection Working Group has only to early October “to vote on a set of pathways” for the DNT standards project. “They can stick with the same process or call the whole thing off.”

Deaths are usually sad occasions, of course, and they typically spawn a string of might have beens and if onlys. Doubtless, the e-advertising industry is focusing its misery on the prospect of giants like Google running the table and governments on both sides of the Atlantic regulating everything else.

But such is not the real pity in this imminent death. The source of truest sorrow is that the death is quite unnecessary. It is not the heroic fall of an industry making a valiant stand against monopoly and regulation. Hardly. It is, rather, the inevitable decline and decay of an industry that has persistently refused to do what is necessary to empower consumers (i.e., the billions who use the Internet and thus give it its value) with transparency and control. It is the tragedy of failing to recognize that online tracking need no longer be the shady vocation of digital snoops and stalkers—that it can be an honorable service from companies dedicated to educating and satisfying consumers by connecting them with companies and products of genuine interest and value to them. It is the willful blindness of serving e-commerce producers at both the actual and perceived expense of e-consumer privacy instead of serving both producers and consumers to their mutual enrichment.

Maybe it really is too late for W3C DNT. If so, the industry must attentively weigh the testimony of its dying declaration. Having weighed it, the industry should be moved to make the highly rational choice to redefine tracking—in earnest and in good faith—as a service to both e-commerce providers and e-commerce consumers. The industry must explain tracking, and its constituent companies must freely offer consumer controls. They must begin persuasively promoting tracking as the value-added it can and should be.

Yes, it is late. Industry efforts to productively control the dialogue on tracking and targeted advertising are dying. But maybe, it’s not too late. Not quite yet.

September 25, 2013