Government regulators in the U.S. and Europe are putting pressure on the online advertising industry to adopt a new Web browser option called "do not track." The option is designed to let people request more privacy from the websites they visit.
But there's no consensus yet on how much privacy users should expect. An Internet industry task force convenes Tuesday in Washington to try to hash that out.
Some browsers, like Internet Explorer, Safari and Firefox, already come with a "do not track" button. Other browsers are expected to add the feature soon.
Jonathan Mayer, a Stanford graduate student specializing in computer science and law, has helped to popularize the concept. He says more than 10 million Internet users are already using the option. It sends a signal to websites and online advertisers that a user does not want his or her browsing behavior tracked.
A coalition of online advertising companies has promised to begin listening for that signal, Mayer says, including Google and Yahoo — two of the industry's largest players.
"But it's not quite clear yet what it's going to mean for them to listen to that signal," he says.
That's the question the Tracking Protection Working Group of the World Wide Web Consortium is currently considering.
The "W3C" may not be a household name, but the group has been setting standards for how websites work for years. Now the consortium is trying to set the standard for how sites should respond when a user clicks the "do not track" button.
Jeffrey Chester, a privacy advocate with the Center for Digital Democracy, will participate in the Washington meeting. He thinks it's pretty obvious what the "do not track" button should mean: "Do not track me at all. Don't follow me when I go around site to site. And get rid of any data you've collected about me right away," he says.
But online advertisers also have a seat at the working group table, and for them, even the concept of the "do not track" button rankles.
Mike Zaneis of the Interactive Advertisers Bureau says the option sends consumers the wrong message.
"If you put a big red flashing button on a browser's toolbar, [users are] going to be scared," Zaneis says. "They're going to turn it on, and they're not going to understand that they have just exited the value exchange which allows companies to invest in content and services — almost all of which are freely available to the consumer."
He says advertisers are happy to let consumers opt out of data collection. He points to the industry-sponsored website www.aboutads.info, where users can notify participating advertisers not to collect data from them online.
"We've [created] a self-regulatory program through the Digital Advertising Alliance, which is delivering additional transparency and consumer control today," Zaneis says.
But privacy advocates are not impressed with those efforts. "I think it's just pure deception at this point," Mayer says. The industry website, he says, puts cookies on a user's computer to remember which data collection he or she has opted out of. As soon as a user deletes cookies, the collection begins again.
Even more importantly, he says, the industry's opt-out rules come with some broad exceptions, "like 'product improvement,' so if they're collecting data for purposes of making their product better, then it's actually OK," Mayer says.
The "do not track" system will have exceptions of its own. Privacy advocates concede there can't be a complete ban on data collection; websites need some basic information simply to operate.
But those advocates say they'd rather see those data-collection rules agreed upon in an open forum like the W3C meeting, as opposed to letting the advertising industry write its own rules.