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Ad tracking: Is anything being done?

Robert L. Mitchell | April 3, 2014
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.

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.

 

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