'Do Not Track' Web System Stuck In Limbo

A failure to meet a European deadline for a deal on a "Do Not Track" system for Web browsers has prompted possible intervention by the government. For a year now, tech companies, the ad industry and privacy hawks have been trying to hammer out the details for the new system, which was supposed to give users the ability to shield their personal information from online companies.

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You may have come across this on Firefox or Internet Explorer. Many Internet browsers now have an option called Do Not Track. It's supposed to limit what websites can do with your personal information. In reality, it doesn't do too much. NPR's Martin Kaste reports that's because online advertisers and the rest of the tech industry can't agree on what Do Not Track should mean.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: The details of the Do Not Track system are in the hands of one of those Internet standards organizations, the W3C, in this case. You may have heard of these groups. They tend to be made up of international uber geeks who reach decisions through consensus. Sometimes in meetings, they'll hum to show their reaction to a given proposal.

ALEECIA MCDONALD: The humming, we did some hums as well.

KASTE: This is Aleecia McDonald, one of the co-chairs of the Do Not Track working group right after its most recent meeting. She's a big believer in the ideal of setting Internet standards through consensus, but so far, consensus is something her group has failed to reach.

MCDONALD: No, we did not. We were hoping to by June, so we've missed that. The deadlines are slipping.

KASTE: They've been at it for a year. And while there are many moving parts to the discussions, the central disagreement is about what's meant by tracking. Jonathan Mayer studies computer science and law at Stanford. He says privacy advocates want Do Not Track to mean do not collect my information, while online advertisers think it should mean do not target ads at me.

JONATHAN MAYER: If you turn on Do Not Track, you will not see ads based on your browsing history, but companies can still continue to use various technologies to collect your browsing history.

KASTE: That's a scenario Mayer is not eager to see. But Mike Zaneis of the Interactive Advertising Bureau trade group says his industry will suffer if people can just switch off data collection.

MIKE ZANEIS: It certainly could put a lot of companies out of business, and it could restrict the availability of freely available content and services that we have today on the Internet.

KASTE: The advertisers' participation in the W3C talks has always been tentative. Zaneis says organizations like this are good at setting technical standards for how websites should display but not so good at setting public policy. And indeed, the geeks may soon have to step aside for the politicians or at least the European regulators who've signaled that if there's no deal this summer, they'll impose their own solution. But in Washington, it's a different story.

JEFFREY CHESTER: In the United States, the industry is simply not feeling the right pressure.

KASTE: Jeffrey Chester is director of the advocacy group Center for Digital Democracy, and he's also part of the W3C group.

CHESTER: There's going to be two roads for Do Not Track, it looks like. One is an EU path where greater controls and requirements are necessary, and one is for the U.S. and the rest of the world where there'll likely be weaker safeguards.

KASTE: In the absence of government action in the U.S., some privacy hawks are looking to technological fixes, such as browser plug-ins that block or scramble the personal information collected by Internet companies. Princeton computer science professor Ed Felten worries about growing online combat over privacy.

ED FELTEN: The advertiser tries to inject tracking on the user's computer, and the user tries to engage in technical blocking measures. That kind of arms race is really not good for anybody.

KASTE: Felten is also part of the Do Not Track working group, and he hopes they can still reach a deal. He says a voluntary system would just be more polite.

FELTEN: And by more polite, I mean that the user makes a request to not be tracked, and the tracker or advertiser responds with a clear indication of what they're going to do, and advertising can still be placed in a way that's acceptable to users.

KASTE: But given all the money that's at stake, it may well be that the old-school Internet traditions of voluntary rules and consensus standards may no longer be up to the task. Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle.

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