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How the W3C met its Waterloo at the Do Not Track vote showdown

And why the silent majority could defeat the web's madmen

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The W3C has set some important rules governing the adoption of web technologies. Yet on the issue of privacy, the standards shop has met its Waterloo.

By establishing things like XML and HTML as standards, the W3C has helped ensure the web works everywhere – no matter what web server or browser you’re using.

Without HTML you’d have no agreement between browser, server and tools makers on how to display a web page. No XML, and you’d have no cloud.

The W3C has brought together warring tech companies who’ve seen technology as religion and believed their way is the one true faith.

After two years' work a standard for Do Not Track (DNT) in the browser – something the W3C calls Tracking Preference Expression (TPE) – has hit a wall. A vote of no confidence among those working on TPE has all but killed the effort.

Why? Because the vote saw the group split along nakedly partisan lines - the tech companies' and ad-makers' representatives, with the latter saying they had no confidence in the group’s work on TPE. Opposite them and wanting to continue the work on DNT were the makers of websites and browsers, those who host ad networks and privacy advocates.

The Digital Advertising Association (DAA) – whose members include banks, car makers, pharma giants, media operations and other technology makers – says it’s now done with the W3C work and is pushing its own, ad-friendly solution. The prospect of an agreement on blocking targeted ads and on allowing online tracking seems doomed, with the admen splitting off to do their own thing.

How did it come to this Simple: money. And mobile.

Unlike on the desktop, where Google reigns as king, the mobile web is a naked scramble because no one search engine or ads network dominates. No-one company dominates to the same extent, although Google is getting close. eMarketer in August said 48 per cent of US mobile ad revenue would go to Google this year.

Facebook is the ads mens' number-two target behind Google; 15 per cent of ads spend is expected to go to Mark Zuckerberg's company by the end of this year - up from 9.4 per cent last year. Twitter, Pandora and YP are expected to be the next biggest three, although in single digits.

There’s no rules on form factors or screen sizes; equally, there’s every incentive for the ad people to try and work out whether you’re the same person each time you hit the web, but using a different device.

The amount of money spent by those trying to target you on mobile was set to grow in 2013: eight out of 10 US ads buyers said last year they’d increase what they spend on mobile ads in the coming 12-18 months, with three quarters saying they’d devote at least five per cent of their total ad budget on mobile.

That means advertising and marketing types want to get out front quickly as possible. Erecting fences now handicaps their potential to make money in the future.

The social networks are further complicating things. Facebook and Twitter offer advertisers the prospect of millions of us to bombard with ads and mine for marketing data.

The two factors driving the rise in mobile ads is greater adoption of smartphones and tablets, and improved ad formats from mobile-optimised websites and social networks.

Only, nobody’s really worked out how to hit paydirt. Again, accepting rules on DNT will mean handicapping any as-yet-undiscovered techniques.

These are not the stately days of HTML and XML, when rivals like IBM, Microsoft and Sun Microsystems formed a gentlemen's club. They might have disagreed over .NET or Java, but it was accepted the internet pie was worth more if everybody used compatible technologies instead of branching off.

Today's madmen aren’t interested in building the plumbing as the W3C did on HTML, and argue their way lets consumers to get what they want through better ads.

DNT is dead in the water, so what’s next?

The W3C told The Register the vote was a one-off called to help the group decide how to move forward. That’s how bad things had become in this working group. The W3C reckoned the working group has a plan going forward, but – as yet – there’s no word on what that plan is. Indeed, it’s not clear what that plan can be.

Mozilla Foundation W3C TPE rep Alex Fowler echoed the party line on the work continuing but, he admitted to The Reg: “It’s not clear to me what the solution will be ultimately, but that’s an ongoing effort.”

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