The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) has announced drafts of two standards that address Internet privacy concerns. The standards, which focus on users’ ability to specify online tracking preferences, are likely to draw lots of attention, given recent controversies at Google and Twitter due to disclosure of personal information.

Digital Bread Crumbs, Digital Identities

For most of us, the Internet has lived up to its alternate moniker, the web. It has become a ubiquitous part of daily life, connecting us to each other’s opinions, preferences and thoughts. We catalog millions of mundane details of our existence every minute across social networks. Even if you don’t drink from the social media activity stream, you probably read news, make purchases, manage finances or check email online.

Each of these activities leave tiny digital bread crumbs. When these bits of data are collected they can used to construct a digital representation of us. Even if the digital identity is not complete, it can be used to draw inferences on who we are and predict our behavior. Our digital identities will only grow more comprehensive as location-based technology and other types of Internet sensors become more common and record activity wherever you are.

This is concerning for some people. Many would prefer to have more control and visibility into who is interrogating their Internet alter ego.

Do Not Track

Actions by federal government officials investigating WikiLeaks in the last month have demonstrated the potential value of data about our online activities. First, Google was compelled to release email data for a WikiLeaks volunteer, and last week Twitter succumbed to the same fate. In both instances, no warrant was required. Obviously, these are extraordinary cases and don’t represent the types of communications or interactions the vast majority of us participate in online. However, the potential implications are relevant. Privacy policies vary by site and some are pretty permissive with collecting and sharing your data -- usually at great profit.

If any website or Internet-enabled device can collect information about our every activity and aggregate that data with information from others doing the same thing, shouldn’t we have a least some level of input? Privacy advocates and the W3C think so.

The W3C announced two drafts related to allowing to control tacking by websites. The Tracking Preference Expression, more commonly known as Do Not Track (DNT), defines how users can specify their preferences regarding tracking across sites and how sites indicate if they will honor the preferences. The second draft, Tracking Compliance and Scope, defines the meaning of “Do Not Track” and practices for sites to comply with the user preference. In addition, the Tracking Compliance and Scope document explicitly details the concerns that W3C is attempting to address with the standard.

The work by the W3C is only an initial step in clarifying the privacy issues that our increasingly connected and data-driven world has created. Do you believe the DNT will improve online privacy? Let us know your thoughts.