W3C rejects ad industry attempt to hijack do-not-track specs

The advertisers' proposed changes would have led to widespread confusion, a W3C working group said

By Loek Essers, IDG News Service |  Security

The World Wide Web Consortium has rejected an attempt by the advertising industry to hijack a specification describing how websites should respond to "do not track" requests sent by Web browsers.

Suggestions from the Digital Advertising Alliance (DAA) would have allowed advertisers to continue profiling users who had asked not to be tracked. It would also have allowed them to "retarget" ads to those users by showing ads relevant to one site or transaction on all subsequent sites they visited, according to the co-chairs of the W3C's Tracking Protection Working Group.

A number of popular browsers can already send a special header along with requests for Web pages to indicate whether the user wishes to be tracked. The working group is mainly concerned with standardizing the technical mechanisms for server-side compliance with those do-not-track requests. It will continue its work on the specification in a teleconference Wednesday.

Proposals similar to those made by the DAA, an umbrella organization of online advertising organizations whose members conduct a large fraction of online advertising, will also be rejected, wrote working group co-chairs Matthias Schunter and Peter Swire on Monday.

Adopting the DAA's proposed changes would have led to "widespread confusion if consumers select a do-not-track option, only to have targeting and collection continue unchanged," they wrote.

There has already been a certain amount of confusion around the do-not-track header, which can signal three values: don't track, do track or no preference. Microsoft had proposed that Internet Explorer 10 would send the message "don't track" by default, even where users had not expressed a preference. Web sites including Yahoo retaliated, saying they would ignore IE10's do-not-track requests and continue to track.

The Tracking Protection Working Group said the DAA's proposals were not only confusing, but also inconsistent with the working group's charter. This states that the do-not-track standard should define mechanisms for expressing user preferences around Web tracking and for blocking or allowing Web tracking elements. The advertisers' suggestions didn't establish a significant change from the status quo, the working group's co-chairs said.

"Based on the comments received, the current DAA Proposal is less protective of privacy and user choice than their earlier initiatives," wrote Schunter and Swire, adding that all DAA proposed changes were rejected. "We will not revisit the choices presented in the DAA change proposal and rejected in this decision," they wrote.

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