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Privacy policy tool failed because of browser rejection

W3C lawyer goes public

Browser company rejection is what turned an innovative plan to have websites and users' computers automatically negotiate privacy into a failure, according to the organisation that invented it.

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) developed the Platform for Privacy Preferences (P3P), a system in which web sites' privacy policies were turned into machine-readable code. But work on that system stopped in 2007 and nobody has created a replacement.

Using P3P users would set what use of their data they were comfortable with and if there was a clash with a website's policy they were notified of that. The system was designed to help users to make sense of ever-more complex privacy policies as web services became more dependent on the use of personal data gleaned from a person's browsing.

Rigo Wenning, W3C's privacy spokesman and legal counsel, told technology law podcast OUT-LAW Radio this week that the system failed because the makers of web browsers did not support it.

"We did not manage to convince the browsers, that's the big failure," he said. "The transparency was really key to it. This has not resulted in browser makers using this to show the user anything. We had all this privacy information from the server side, we had all this information out there and the browsers didn't do anything with it."

"[Internet Explorer version] 6 contained some very basic P3P implementation that was only looking at cookies and could display policy a bit. This transparency wasn't really achieved because of the client side," said Wenning.

The problem that P3P was designed to solve was that people's privacy rights were being trampled on because they did not defend them. They could not defend them because they could not understand privacy policies, said Wenning.

"We see that people disregard privacy policies when they are written in 22 pages of legalese," he said. "And businesses hide behind those privacy policies and consumers do not care as long as there is no incident."

While no browser-implemented alternative has appeared, Wenning said that in forums such as W3C's Policy Languages Interest Group (PLING) and in the EU-funded Prime Life project, development of alternatives is based on the findings of P3P.

"Our research in this area is based on P3P. It's all based on the assumption that you label data. How do you get a data warehouse that is more intelligent?" said Wenning. "You have to transfer the semantics that are attached to personal data. What have you promised? What was the initial intention [in collecting] this data?"

"If you store these semantics in the data warehouse or in your back end database, whatever, it makes life easier and it allows easy compliance or easy care for privacy by companies," he said.

For transcript and downloads, see: Whatever happened to P3P?, OUT-LAW Radio, 08/10/2009

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