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Universal Opt Out Option for Web Tracking Drafted

The World Wide Web Consortium has released a draft standard for establishing do-not-track preferences of Web users.

On Nov. 14, the W3C's Tracking Protection Working Group published drafts for two standards, the Tracking Preference Expression, which defines how users to express their tracking preferences and how Web sites indicate whether they will honor them; and the Tracking Compliance and Scope Specification, which defines a do-not-track preference and how websites can comply with it.

The drafts could be ratified as official standards by mid-2012.

Mozilla introduced a do-not-track option in its Firefox browser earlier this year, and it soon was joined by Microsoft Internet Explorer 9 and Apple Safari. Google Chrome doesn't have such a feature, but one is available as an add-in.

But as CNET's Dennis O'Reilly writes, compliance with user preferences is voluntary, and most sites will track visitors even if they have their do-not-track feature enabled.

A bill that would set requirements for honoring user preferences, the Do-Not-Track Online Act of 2011 (S. 913), was introduced in May by Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), and currently sits before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

The do-not-track feature used in Firefox, IE 9 and Safari is an HTTP header field that broadcasts a request to Web sites to disable tracking -- or lets them opt in, since some users want the ads and services that third parties deliver by tracking their habits. It's a standard created by researchers at Stanford University, and it is compatible with current Web technologies.

The W3C draft standard would solidify do-not-track procedures, defining the mechanisms for broadcasting users' preferences, for Web sites to signal whether and how they would comply, and for users to grant site-specific exceptions to allow tracking.

W3C's working group acknowledged that tracking has benefits and that a lot of users "appreciate the personalization made possible through this data collection: an improved user experience, reduction in irrelevant or repetitive ads, and avoidance of 'paywalls' or subscription-only services," the W3C said.

But other users see tracking as intrusive and an invasion of privacy, so the working group is seeking to balance the interests of users, Web sites and regulators though the standards.

"Smarter commerce and marketing strategies can and must coexist with respect for individual privacy," Matthias Schunter of IBM's Research Lab in Zurich and co-chair of the Working Group, said in W3C's announcement. "Open standards that help design privacy into the fabric of how business and society use the Web can enable trust in a sustainable manner."

And although compliance with any do-not-track standard is voluntary for now, advertisers could support the standard, if only to avoid the regulations that would come with the Senate's Do-Not-Track bill, should it ever be passed.

Ryan Paul at Ars Technica writes that mainstream advertisers have a pretty good record on user preferences and have supported opt-out initiatives before.

Participants in the working group currently include representatives of 15 W3C members, among them Adobe, Apple, Facebook, Google, IBM, Mozilla, Microsoft, Opera Software, Stanford University and Yahoo. The group also has invited input from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission and a few European groups.

About the Author

Kevin McCaney is the managing editor of Government Computer News.

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