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OPENWEBID: British ad-tech group asks W3C review

of “nonprofit” identity solution; Google competitor?

“Putting aside commercial capitalist hats”? 

By Bill Densmore

A British-based group of ad-tech companies and publishers sought on Friday advice and input from a World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) group for a new web identity system that could reduce the need for a set of proposals advanced by Google. The request by a group called SWAN.commmunity was made by ad-tech executive James Rosewell, a persistent Google ad-tech critic. would appreciate the opportunity to explain our approach and intentions,” said Rosewell’s email to the members of the W3C’s Privacy Community Group, which has been reviewing ad-related privacy and identity proposals from Google, Apple and elsewhere. “We would also appreciate feedback from this group, particularly in relation to the use of legal remedies to protect people’s important privacy rights.” 

“The group says its Secure Web Addressability Network (SWAN) offers an alternative as Google plans to phase out third-party cookies on its dominant Chrome browser,” wrote reporter Charlotte Tobbitt of the British media-analysis site  Tobbitt’s account said the SWAN group would be nonprofit. In its March 31 announcement, Rosewell was quoted as saying: “We are replacing third party cookies with a utility that won’t be run for excessive profit or proprietary gain.”

The idea appears to be an anonymized shared identification openingly offered to users who arrive at participating websites. The users are given the option to accept the ID or not. Participating websites have to accept take-it-or-leave-it  “model terms” to participate in the cross-site identity service, which Rosewell said depends upon first-party cookies to operate. SWAN’s FAQ says publishers in its network remainfree to build profiles to personalize advertising and other experiences “of those users who provide consent” but are contractually prohibited from “buying and/or selling either media or profile data.”

SWAN’s news release says the approach will give users the option to be asked once for privacy preferences that will then apply to all of the publishers they visit within SWAN services use the model terms. “A simply worded consent box asks the user to opt in or out of personalised marketing – meaning they won’t constantly be asked for their permission to view their chosen websites and can ask to be forgotten at any point,” the group wrote March 31.

The SWAN idea is posted publicly on GitHub and the March 31 announcement includes a short “How It Works” description at the bottom.  It’s based upon something its builders are calling an “OpenWebID” described as an “open source cryptographically secure shared web identifier schema implemented in JavaScript.”

In the PressGazette account, Hobbit direct-quoted Rosewell: “We’ve had to put, to a certain extent, our commercial capitalist hats to one side and say ‘okay how do we create this community and what features does it have to have?”

He continued in her account: “It’s a not for profit organisation that enables multiple organisations to operate against a common set of standards to deliver the services that you see in SWAN, and it’s structured in such a way so that you can never have a dominant company like a Facebook or a Google, again, for the pure and singular purpose of capturing a consent preference privacy choice, and providing identifiers that go alongside that preference. That’s all it does. It does nothing more than that.”

Rosewell is head of the company 51Degrees. In July 2020, he led an initial appeal to W3C administrators claiming identity proposals from big-tech were receiving too much attention.  He then emerged as the principal spokesperson for a group called Marketers for an Open Web. The group has been unwilling to disclose its members.

Until Rosewell’s email, the SWAN idea had not been offered to W3C for review, even informally.  It was announced last week.  In its news account, AdAge wrote the headline: “Digital advertisers push alternative to Google’s cookie-replacement plan.” Another account, Post-cookie battles: Google’s FLoC vs SWAN vs Unified ID 2.0” said ad-tech companies PubMatic, OpenX and Zeta Global were backers.  

In his email sent April 9, Rosewell says his group’s SWAN proposal — distinct and apart from another “SWAN” acronym idea which is part of Google’s “Privacy Sandbox” — is intended to “give people meaningful choice, data portability and privacy when navigating across the web” and “continue to access web sites without having to provide directly-identifiable personal information . . . “  He writes that legal, economic and engineering disciplines are involved in what he termed a “privacy-by-design approach to propose a decentralized and auditable supply chain that people can trust.” 

The bottom of each page of the website includes likes to a wireframe-like example of the service.  In a pop-up, it demonstrates the issuance of a “Secure Web ID” such as 36241a91-280e-4821-8c37-c2f9a590a7da and includes the language:These details are shared with the SWAN Network to manage your preferences. See further the SWAN Network Privacy Notice.”