W3C Releases Draft Online Privacy Standards

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) has released the first draft of two standards intended to protect the privacy of Web users and allow them to opt out of Web tracking systems.

The two draft standards, released Monday, are intended to "prevent surprises, to foster trust on the Web" and to find a balance between the privacy of Web users and the information collection requirements of websites, the W3C said.

One standard defines a do-not-track preference and sets out practices for websites to comply, and the second standard defines mechanisms for users to express their preferences for cross-site tracking.

Compliance with the standards would generally be voluntary, but several browsers -- including Internet Explorer, Firefox and Safari -- already allow users to set do-not-track preferences, and several websites have committed to honoring those requests, said Thomas Roessler, technology and security domain leader at W3C.

"Due to the broad industry involvement in the development of the standard, led by cochairs from Mozilla and IBM, we expect wide uptake as we pursue getting to a standard by mid-2012," he said.

Regulators in the U.S. and European Union are watching the standards-setting efforts, however, Roessler said.

"W3C develops its standards in an open and transparent multi-stakeholder process, to achieve interoperability and relevance across the globe," he said. "The level of interoperability and broad-based support that arises out of this standards process creates strong incentives for uptake in self-regulatory and voluntary compliance frameworks."

The standards seek to allow greater tracking options for Web users, W3C said in a press release. Among the goals are an improved user experience and a reduction in irrelevant or repetitive ads, the organization said. Some Web users "perceive targeting as intrusive, incorrect, or amounting to junk mail," W3C said. "In particular, it can evoke strong negative feelings when data collected at a trusted site is used or shared without the user's consent."

Also on Monday, a representative of the U.S. White House said President Barack Obama's administration will push for online privacy standards and work with standards-setting groups to achieve voluntary standards that can be enforced by the FTC.

Even if Congress doesn't enact a consumer privacy bill of rights endorsed by the Obama administration, the White House will move forward with online privacy standards, said Daniel Weitzner, deputy CTO for Internet policy at the White House. The White House will work with private companies, privacy advocates and regulators to develop online privacy standards, eh said.

"As we look around the Internet marketplace, what we see is that virtually all responsible, consumer facing companies ... have already adopted very strong privacy policies," Weitzner said at a U.S. Chamber of Commerce forum on broadband regulation.

Consumers can file complaints with the FTC against companies that don't follow their own privacy policies, he said. However, some companies "on the margins" do not give consumers basic privacy protections, creating the need for additional, enforceable standards, he said.

Participants in the W3C tracking standards discussions have included Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, the Center for Democracy and Technology, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, and other groups.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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