W3C Privacy Workgroup Issues First Draft of Do Not Track Standard

Nov 24, 2011

W3C has published the first draft of a new Web standard that addresses online privacy. It establishes an official specification for the mechanism that browsers use to broadcast the “Do Not Track” (DNT) privacy preference to websites. The draft was authored by a new W3C Tracking Protection Working Group and could be ratified as an official standard by the middle of next year.

Mozilla originally introduced the DNT setting in Firefox 4 earlier this year. The feature consists of a simple HTTP header flag that can be toggled through the browser’s preference dialog. The flag tells website operators and advertisers that the user wants to opt out of invasive tracking and other similar practices that have become pervasive with the rise of behavioral advertising.

Of course, the mechanism just indicates a preference and doesn’t actively block tracking activity. The success and efficacy of the DNT header is predicated on voluntary compliance from the Internet advertisers that will have to take steps to implement support for the feature.

Although getting advertisers on board will take some effort, it’s not an insurmountable obstacle. The mainstream behavioral advertising industry happens to have a decent track record on self-regulation and respecting opt-out initiatives. Their desire to avoid government intervention has led major behavioral advertising companies to stay honest.

There are a number of existing opt-out mechanisms that are already widely supported by advertisers. For example, the Network Advertising Initiative, which is backed by major Internet advertising companies, offers a simple Web-based tool that helps users configure opt-out cookies. The problem with the cookie-based approach, however, is impermanence. If the user clears their browser cookies, their opt-out preference is lost.

Mozilla came up with the DNT header and proposed it as a more practical long-term alternative to the cookie approach. The idea generated a lot of discussion but didn’t initially attract the support of advertisers. Mozilla decided to roll the DNT feature out in the major Firefox 4 release—even though it wouldn’t do anything yet due to lack of advertiser support-with the hope that the move would encourage adoption.

It didn’t take long for Mozilla’s gamble to pay off. At least one major advertiser was already on board by the time that Firefox 4 reached consumers. Shortly after the release, other major advertisers began to take it seriously and considered implementing support. Microsoft and Apple also decided to back the feature.

Defining an official DNT standard seems like another really good step to help encourage broader support for the feature among advertisers. The spec will ideally provide clear and consistent guidance on how DNT support should be implemented in both servers and browsers.

The spec goes beyond merely defining how the header should be transmitted. It aims to address a lot of other issues, such as defining a standardized well-known URI where servers can issue responses to indicate whether they respect the DNT header. The draft is still at an early stage of development, however, and has many placeholders for sections that still have to be finished.

There are 15 companies and organizations collaborating on the draft through the W3C working group. These include all of the major browser vendors, several major Web companies (including Facebook), and advocacy groups like Consumer Watchdog and the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which has previously expressed interest in seeing broad DNT support, is also listed as a member of the working group.

The DNT standardization effort seems like a constructive undertaking that is on the right track. The draft of the DNT specification and the DNT compliance specification are both available from the W3C website.


Source Ars Technica

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