Ad tracking: Is anything being done?

With online tracking on the rise and Do Not Track efforts moving ahead slowly, users and browser vendors have been taking matters into their own hands.

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"As the industry moves toward stealthier methods of tracking [such as device and browser fingerprinting], the only way we can reliably prevent tracking is to block entire requests," says Brian Kennish, co-CEO of Disconnect. Tools like Disconnect take the draconian step of blocking requests to third-party ad networks to deliver an ad when the user visits the site -- which means even a non-targeted ad can't be delivered to the user.

In contrast, a universally accepted Do Not Track mechanism would still allow third-party advertising networks to substitute a contextually appropriate ad for a behaviorally targeted one (e.g., a game ad for users on a gaming site) rather than cutting off the request entirely. "We'd prefer a more subtle solution where we don't have to throw out the entire request," Kennish says.

"It's a very blunt tool. That's why we're trying to find a middle ground with Do Not Track," says the Center for Democracy and Technology's Brookman.

The DNT controversy

W3C formed the Tracking Protection Working Group in 2011. Its mission is "to improve user privacy and user control by defining mechanisms for expressing user preferences around Web tracking and for blocking or allowing Web tracking elements."

But debate among the members of the organization -- which include privacy advocates, Web publishers, advertising networks and many others -- has been contentious, culminating last year with some well-publicized resignations on both the consumer and advertiser sides of the debate.

More recently, the group has been making slow progress on its Tracking Preference Expression standard, which determines the syntax and meaning of the DNT signal. This specification should be ready to be released this spring, according to Brookman. But that may turn out to be the easy part. The group still needs to agree on the Tracking Compliance and Scope specification, which deals with what actions ad networks must take to comply with the DNT request -- and that is still controversial, he says.

For the third-party advertising networks in particular, the DNT discussions represent a potential crisis. Eliminating all tracking is unfair, says Mike Zaneis, senior vice president of public policy at the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB), a trade organization for website publishers and online ad sellers; Zaneis is also the IAB representative to the W3C Tracking Protection Working Group.

Advertisers increasingly pay based not on whether users view an ad but whether they respond to it. "You need a way to track user interactions, both on the publisher page and throughout the purchase process. This represents basic accounting and measurement practices for digital advertising," he says.

Not unexpectedly, privacy advocates disagree. "We don't want to break the Web," Abine's Downey says, but adds that users should have a choice as to whether to share -- and with whom. "The industry has created a default where you're followed wherever you go by hundreds of companies."

And the information gathered isn't used to just deliver behaviorally targeted ads, she says, but can be used in other ways, resulting in lower credit scores, price discrimination on e-commerce sites based on your tracking profile or higher insurance premiums. (Downey keeps a running list of examples of such abuses.) "You don't have a say in any of this," she says. Users, she explains, should have a choice when it comes to tracking.

But they do have a choice, argues Zaneis. While no global Do Not Track program is available yet, many publishers and advertising networks allow users to opt out of interest-based advertising for individual sites and services. In addition, the Digital Advertising Alliance's Ad Choices program lets consumers opt out of receiving interest-based advertising from the trade group's 118 members, which include third-party ad networks. And when users opt out, he says, members also agree to stop tracking their online activity.

Is the W3C working group working?

What the W3C's working group was supposed to deliver is that global option -- a choice for users in the form of a universally recognized Do Not Track option that, when turned on, would enable the browser to communicate a Do Not Track signal to publishers and ad distribution networks. The browser vendors were to offer the feature and the working group was to develop the standards dictating what Do Not Track means and how advertisers should respond.

All organizations would then be obligated to honor the user's request, following the specifications laid out by the working group. For instance, Brookman says, "you can't [manually] opt out of every single tracking company. You need a global opt out."

But the effort has bogged down. Since its founding, the working group's membership has ballooned to more than 100 voting participants that represent a wide range of competing constituencies -- including consumers, Web publishers, ad networks, browser vendors, ISPs, cable companies and others.

Until recently, the group hadn't even been able to agree on the basic definitions behind Do Not Track, says group member Mark Groman, president and CEO of the Network Advertising Initiative, a self-regulatory industry association that counts 95 advertising companies as members.

"What does it mean to track -- or not track? What is a first party versus a third party?" And, he adds, does Do Not Track mean "don't gather any information on the user at all," or "don't deliver behaviorally targeted advertising based on that data"?

Last fall, Groman says, they were still having discussions over how to define the words "collection" and "sharing." "That presents a real problem when you're trying to develop a standard," he says.

"Instead of defining what we wanted to control, we delved right into the minutiae," says the IAB's Zaneis. But Brookman, who joined the group in 2011 and became co-chair in September, says the group finally has agreed upon definitions, including the terms "tracking," "collect" and "share." The group has "only a couple unresolved issues that we're working out in the technical document, and then we'll proceed to last call," which is the last opportunity for public input before the standard is approved, he says.

"Perhaps those should have been nailed down earlier, but they are the first things we are settling under the new plan to move forward," he says.

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