Pushing for online privacy on the East and West Coasts

Fri, Nov 4, 2011 at 4:27 pm

    Pushing for online privacy on the East and West Coasts

    The week began for me at meetings in the heart of geekdom in Silicon Valley and concluded with consumer and privacy advocates meeting in New York City.  The two sessions are more related than you might first think.

    The New York meetings, convened by the Consumer Federation of America, were an off-the-record session for consumer and privacy advocates to discuss privacy issues candidly with each other and some Microsoft Corp. representatives.

    While still honoring the off-the-record rules of the New York session, I can say I emerged with a feeling that it’s unlikely Congress will manage to pass any privacy legislation soon.  Perhaps a bipartisan consensus could emerge around protracting children’s privacy, but given the ongoing divisive rancour and stalemate in Washington, even that seems unlikely.

    But the bills that have been introduced — Do Not Track legislation by Sen. Jay Rockefeller and Rep. Jackie Spier and a general online privacy legislation by Sen. John Kerry and Sen. John McCain — have, partly because of advocacy efforts of many of the participants in the New York meeting, prompted action elsewhere.

    The latest versions of three of the four web browsers — Mozilla’s Firefox, Apple’s Safari, and Microsoft’s Internet Explorer — now offer a Do Not Track mechanism.  The only catch is that nobody is under any obligation to honor it.

    That’s why I was in the Silicon Valley — Santa Clara to be precise — on Monday and Tuesday. The World Wide Web Consortium, fondly known in geek speak as the W3C, was meeting.  This is an organization that brings so-called Internet stakeholders together to develop “standards” for the web.  When you get into high tech, it’s sometimes necessary to agree to the rules of the road.  And, if you don’t want government figuring them out for you and imposing them, you do it yourself.  W3C is comprised mostly of tech companies, trade association and academics.

    Most of the standards developed are highly technical and while I’m sure they are critical to a well-functioning Internet, they are way over my head.

    But because of all the recent emphasis on online privacy, the various Do Not Track bills that have been introduced, including Sen. Alan Lowenthal’s SB 762  right here California, and advocacy that has resulted in lots of media attention, the W3C decided to do something.

    They’ve created a committee called the Tracking Protection Working Group.  It’s supposed to set standards for how a Do Not Track message would be sent and what a website’s responsibilities would be if it received a DNT message. A third objective is to set standards for tracking protection lists, an approach to the problem favored by Microsoft.

    When we at Consumer Watchdog heard about this we figured this process was going to result in more than just technical standards; it would also have significant policy implications. So we asked if we could be part of the process.

    Co-chair Aleecia McDonald and her W3C colleagues agreed that we had contributions to make and my colleague Carmen Balber and I have been participating for the last few weeks.  I was at the Santa Clara Face-to-Face meeting (F2F as it’s known) as an “invited expert.”  It’s probably the first time I’ve ever been dubbed an “expert” in my life.

    The group spent two long days attempting to find consensus on two draft documents: “Tracking Preference Expression” (how you send the DNT message) and “Tracking Compliance and Scope” (what a website is supposed to do when it gets a message).  After two days under the leadership of McDonald and her Co-chair Matthias Schunter, the working group was able to reach consensus on a first working draft of each of the two documents. Progress on the tracking lists piece remains slow.

    As you’ll see if you check the documents on the working group’s website, much of the documents at this stage simply identify issues that have been raised and still need to be resolved.  On the site you can also find an archive of the emails where much of the discussion as taken place.

    The ambitious schedule calls for the standards to be written by June.  They may call me an “expert,” but frankly I don’t know if that schedule is possible.  I do know this, though, W3C would not be moving forward at all were it not for the independent activities of the advocates who met in New York and others like them.


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