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October 28, 1999

World Wide Web Consortium Fights Off Privacy Patent

By CBR Staff Writer

After a lengthy legal analysis, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) has concluded that its Platform for Privacy Preferences (P3P) does not infringe a patent held by Intermind Corp. P3P was designed to let web sites tell users what their privacy practices are, and to give those users more control over their personal information. Just as P3P was about to be widely deployed, Intermind announced its intention to charge royalties to anyone using the specification. Web developers dropped the spec like a hot potato. The W3C decided to act. Given the fundamental importance of privacy protection on the web, and our commitment to open standards, we decided that it was our responsibility to provide the community with a thorough analysis of the relationship between the patent and P3P, explained the W3C’s Daniel Weitzner.

The W3C retained patent attorney Barry Rein to evaluate whether P3P infringes Intermind’s patent. Rein has concluded that developers can comply with P3P without violating Intermind’s intellectual property rights. His reasoning is that Intermind’s patent describes communications objects used as control structures to direct client-server interactions. The control structures use object-oriented programming to transfer executable code and metadata from client to server. Rein and his team say that since neither the P3P proposal nor the User Preference file includes data, metadata or instructions encapsulated in programming objects, P3P-compliant web services and user agents will not literally infringe any claim of the patent.

The W3C says the support of the web community was critical to the patent analysis. During the review, the W3C called on developers to contribute information that might help its patent attorneys. It received 100 substantial technology contributions, which apparently helped enormously. All that remains is for those same developers to take up P3P and implement it in ways that do not violate Intermind’s patent. If they do, the W3C can give up patent law and get back to encouraging the development of other open standards though collaboration. We felt that we owed it to the web community to clear up the confusion, Weitzner concludes, but hope not to make this a regular practice. W3C’s job is half over, and policy analyst Joseph Reagle reckons it should issue a ‘last call’ for queries and suggestions from the advisory committee, shortly. After that, it will try to promote the specification and try to make sure that companies bundling the technology do so in a way that keeps the standard open. á

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