03 August 2021

Protocol: “Inside Big Tech’s angry, geeky, often petty war for your privacy”

The W3C’s members do it all by consensus in public GitHub forums and open Zoom meetings with meticulously documented meeting minutes, creating a rare archive on the internet of conversations between some of the world’s most secretive companies as they collaborate on new rules for the web in plain sight.

But lately, that spirit of collaboration has been under intense strain as the W3C has become a key battleground in the war over web privacy. Over the last year, far from the notice of the average consumer or lawmaker, the people who actually make the web run have converged on this niche community of engineers to wrangle over what privacy really means, how the web can be more private in practice and how much power tech giants should have to unilaterally enact this change.

Because the W3C’s standards are voluntary, no one was under any real obligation to heed the Do Not Track signal, effectively neutering the feature. Browsers could send a signal indicating a user didn’t want to be tracked, but websites and companies powering their ads didn’t (and don’t) have to listen.

In his post-mortem on the ordeal, Tene summed up the Do Not Track effort succinctly: It was protracted, rife with hardball rhetoric and combat tactics, based on inconsistent factual claims, and under constant threat of becoming practically irrelevant due to lack of industry buy-in.

For anyone participating in today’s privacy discussions inside the W3C, it’s a description that sounds eerily familiar.

Issie Lapowsky

As much as some people, especially in American tech circles, constantly complain and actively push against privacy legislation, this W3C process looks completely dysfunctional. European regulations, imperfect as they may be, are at least reached through a democratic process and better represent the interests of the general public. The W3C, as presented in this article, has no input from the public or elected officials, representing instead only the interests of Big Tech and ad companies, which seldomly align with the idea of privacy as a human right. No wonder progress is slow; neither of these entities in genuinely interested in people’s privacy, so they are simply pushing competing visions of the Internet that would benefit them most and hurt their competitors.

W3C tug-of-war wire snapping
The World Wide Web Consortium is caught in a tug-of-war within its community of engineers and developers. Image: Christopher T. Fong/Protocol

To make matters worse, the consortium has no actual power to enforce these standards, so even if there is consensus at some point in the future, some companies may just decide to ignore the standard and keep their practices unchanged – as it has already happened a decade ago with Do Not Track. This is a failing model, and I doubt it will ever lead to any sort of progress on this topic.

Perhaps it should have been a clear sign Do Not Track was doomed when, Tene wrote, the group tried to settle its dispute over the definition of tracking by seeing which side could hum loudest. Addressing this method, one participant complained, There are billions of dollars at stake and the future of the Internet, and we’re trying to decide if one third-party is covered or didn’t hum louder! Tene wrote.

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