A few members of the group charged with creating the spec for a browser-based Do Not Track function have signaled their displeasure with the process by supporting a "contingency plan" that would effectively end the two years of talks without an outcome. But it's far from clear whether they can find consensus to push that idea through.
Stanford grad student Jonathan Mayer, who has been very active on privacy issues and is the author of a proposal to turn off third-party cookie tracking by default in Mozilla's Firefox browser, raised the idea in a listserv post to fellow members of the World Wide Web Consortium's (W3C) Tracking Protection Working Group.
"We are 18 months behind schedule, with no end in sight," he wrote. "There must come a stopping point. There must come a time when we agree to disagree. If we cannot reach consensus by next month, I believe we will have arrived at that time."
Mayer signed off "speaking only for himself, as usual," but two other group members quickly voiced their support, including Jeff Chester of the privacy nonprofit Center for Democracy and Technology.
Another member, Apple's David Singer, denied an "impasse."
"That is what you would like to believe, and what you tell others," he wrote. "Determination of consensus, impasse, and alternative routes ahead are primarily the responsibility of the chairs. It is perhaps kind of you to assume their role, but there is still work remaining for us mere delegates to do."
There are a few possible interpretations for the new stance from Mayer and his privacy colleagues. One is a sense that the negotiation process on Do Not Track has been opaque, resulting in concessions on privacy protection. Additionally some have voiced concern about back room deals that may run counter to W3C bylaws, or at the very least to its spirit of openness and transparency. Throwing in the towel, or seeming to, could be a means to gain power in the parley. Alternatively, it could be interpreted as a serious gesture to abolish the process and put the issue in the court of the regulators. The general view is that blunt legislation becomes more likely in the event the W3C can't agree on a tech spec for Do Not Track, and that such legislation would run counter to ad industry interests.
However, privacy advocates are not the only members of the working group who feel the process is broken. Alan Chapell, a consultant to ad industry clients and vice chair at the Network Advertising Initiative, is among those who remain concerned that the TPWG's current draft proposal favors the ad tracking interests of a subset of Internet giants that have direct consumer relationships (e.g. Apple, Google, Aol, and Yahoo) while sidelining others.
But Chapell says he wants to stick with the W3C process. "We have every incentive to remain at the table to find a solution that works," he said.
Mayer's "contingency" proposal is consistent with his recent remarks about personal fatigue on the privacy issue. In a recent interview with AdExchanger, Mayer hinted he was fed up with the Do Not Track process and increasingly sees technical solutions as the right path to consumer privacy protection.
"I’m not too optimistic on negotiated terms for Do Not Track, but I’m increasingly optimistic that, by virtue of the browsers’ efforts, consumers will get the choices they want," he said.
Below is Mayer's post in full:
We first met to discuss Do Not Track over 2 years ago. We have now held 10 in-person meetings and 78 conference calls. We have exchanged 7,148 emails. And those boggling figures reflect just the official fora.
The group remains at an impasse. We have sharpened issues, and we have made some progress on low-hanging fruit. But we still have not resolved our longstanding key disagreements, including: What information can websites collect, retain, and use? What sorts of user interfaces and defaults are compliant, and can websites ignore noncompliant browsers?
Our Last Call deadline is July 2013. That due date was initially January 2012. Then April 2012. Then June 2012. Then October 2012. We are 18 months behind schedule, with no end in sight.
There must come a stopping point. There must come a time when we agree to disagree. If we cannot reach consensus by next month, I believe we will have arrived at that time.
I would make two proposals for next Wednesday's call. First, that we commit to not punting our July deadline. If we have not attained agreement on Last Call documents, we should wind up the working group. Second, that we begin planning a responsible contingency process for winding up the working group if we miss our deadline.
Let me be clear: I am not proposing that we halt our work. I plan to continue collaborating in good faith right up until our deadline. I remain committed to Do Not Track as a uniform, persistent, easy-to-use, and effective control over collection of a consumer's browsing history. I believe a consensus Do Not Track standard is the best possible outcome for all stakeholders in the web ecosystem. But I also believe prudence dictates some planning for foreseeable alternative outcomes.
(Speaking only for himself, as usual.)