Consumer advocates are raising new concerns that Google, Facebook and others are rigging an industry effort to let web browsers block Internet firms from tracking their searches by funding one of the referees in the self-policing effort.
The influential Center for Democracy and Technology, which holds one of the three chairs on the World Wide Web Consortium working up “Do Not Track” rules, received more than $2.5 million from Google, Facebook and Mozilla in recent years, according to their publicly released IRS forms.
A knowledgeable source said the draft proposals would let large sites like Google and Facebook ignore when users push the “Do Not Track” button. Also, they could use the data they get from users to power their ad-serving products that place ads on third-party sites.
“I am troubled that organizations in Washington, D.C., that claim to represent Internet users on privacy issues also take money from the companies that create the privacy risks,” said Marc Rotenberg of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.
Some say the developing rule is weak and makes “Do Not Track” pointless. Others want the Federal Trade Commission to jump in, as they did with the “Do Not Call” mandate on telemarketers.
But the Center for Democracy and Technology told the Washington Examiner that the concerns about their involvement are baseless and what’s more, in the end it’s up to the Internet players to voluntarily adopt the rule.
“CDT prides itself in bringing all sides to policy deliberations, but our policy stances and advocacy work are not influenced by donors,” said spokesman Brian Wesolowski.
He added that the group has been open and transparent about their funding for years and even publishes its IRS forms and provides charts showing funding.
Justin Brookman, CDT’s director of Consumer Privacy Project and a co-chairman of the “Do Not Track” working group, also dismissed the claims that big-money Internet firms will be given a pass. “I know some people have been trying to plant that story for a while, but it's not true. Facebook and Google can't monitor what you do on third-party sites,” he said.
He also said that neither have been active in the Do Not Track effort recently and added that the industry effort is voluntary.
"Google has not been active in the DNT group for a long time, they have not done anything on this issue that I know of. Facebook did argue in the group that they should be able to use data they already have, but they haven't really been active in W3C recently either. And of course, the standard is voluntary — no one has to implement. Not many third parties are honoring today — including Facebook and Google, unfortunately," he said.Rotenberg, of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, explained that self regulation “has produced little of value for users." For example, he said that the industry has produced warning labels disguised as privacy policies.
“EPIC has always supported privacy laws that establish clear responsibilities for companies that collect and use personal data, backed up by meaningful enforcement. We are not against the companies or the services. But we do believe privacy protection is a critical requirement and that real protection requires real law,” he said. “That is the basis of meaningful privacy protection in the United States.”Paul Bedard, the Washington Examiner's "Washington Secrets" columnist, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.