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W3C Appoints Do-Not-Track Mediator: Good Luck with That

12/4/12

By Ken Magill

Want to unload a sinking ship? Well, I’ve got a taker. His name is Peter Swire.

The World Wide Web Consortium last week announced it has appointed Swire, a law professor at Ohio State University and a former White House privacy official during the Clinton administration, co-chairman of its Tracking Protection Working Group.

Swire’s aim is to mediate the W3C’s debate over the implementation of a universal do-not-track mechanism giving consumers the ability to opt out of having their browsing behavior tracked for advertising purposes.

First, why anyone thought the W3C was the place to hash out the issue of do-not-track is anyone’s guess. Whatever they come up with—which is increasingly looking like it will be nothing—can only be applied on a voluntary basis.

If ad-industry executives don’t like what they see, they can ignore it.

Second, the whole process has been poisoned, probably beyond anyone’s ability to fix.

For one thing, at least one player on the ad side of this debate has already shown it isn’t negotiating in good faith. By announcing it would turn its do-not-track signal on by default in IE 10, Microsoft demonstrated it can’t set aside its competitiveness with Google even on an issue that threatens the whole online ad industry.

Then there’s the individual rancor.

Take, for example, the following quote from Stanford computer science graduate student Jonathan Mayer aimed at Shane Wiley, the vice president for privacy and data governance at Yahoo!.

“Shane

“For want of a better metaphor: you are the climate change skeptic of computer privacy. Against an overwhelming consensus in the scientific community, you persist in claiming that re-pseudonymization significantly mitigates privacy risks. I am not aware of a single serious researcher who shares your radical view.”

Set aside the utterly inappropriate and irrational personal attack. What the heck is a graduate student doing weighing in on this debate at all?

Swire would be well advised to tell Mayer to STFU.

Message to Mayer: Finish your degree and then come out and get a private-sector job either in sales or sales support—hint: in the private sector, if it ain’t sales, it’s sales support—hold it down for a few years and then maybe we’ll start taking you a little more seriously.

Then there are issues surrounding Swire himself.

Here is what he reportedly told the New York Times’ Natasha Singer:

“’People can choose not to have telemarketers call them during dinner. The simple idea is that users should have a choice over how their Internet browsing works as well,” Mr. Swire said in a phone interview. But he added: ‘The overarching theme is how to give users choice about their Internet experience while also funding a useful Internet.’”

If Swire thinks do not call and do not track are anything alike, someone in marketing and advertising needs to have a talk with him fast.

And funding a “useful” Internet? How about funding an innovative Internet? That’s what advertising has done.

Swire’s most notable accomplishment is coordinating the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, while serving as the President Clinton’s chief counselor for privacy.

Originally intended to allow individuals to keep their health insurance coverage when they changed jobs, HIPAA has become infamous as the bureaucratic shield healthcare employees hide behind to avoid giving out information on patients to their kin.

Like all regulations, HIPAA’s a bastard child with a lot of fathers, but Swire’s the guy most notably associated with it.

His privacy chops would seem to outweigh his advertising chops by a lot. Would the W3C be as comfortable bringing on, say, DoubleClick co-founder Kevin O’Connor as a mediator? Just asking.

A well-placed source told me Swire has a reputation as a solid guy who can bring sparring interests together.

The words “miracle worker” never came up, though.

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