How 51Degrees invented SWAN


3/31/2021 11:00 AM

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Secure Web Addressablility Network and why it’s different

For the Open Web to remain viable for our customers, our children, and ourselves, an economic model that enables it to compete with other platforms, like Google’s walled garden, is required. As a real-time data company, such solutions are our “sweet spot”.

In parallel with supporting Marketers for an Open Web to pursue a regulatory remedy to the issues of competition in digital markets, we have invented SWAN to provide a technical remedy for those that share our vision.

We’re excited about the announcement of SWAN and the 60-day consultation period during April and May 2021 that has now started. This blog explains why 51Degrees invented SWAN and the considerations that it was founded on.


An entire industry has been wrestling with the problems of privacy since the growth of the World Wide Web (WWW) in the late 90s.

More than engineering

In designing SWAN we recognized that solving this complex problem would require multiple disciplines involving law, politics, economics, and engineering. Neither profession alone could provide a complete solution.

Many of the attempts to solve the problem including Do Not Track (DNT) or Google’s Privacy Sandbox only addressed one aspect of the problem.

DNT failed because it provides a “signal” to communicate a preference without defining a legal meaning for the signal or a binding contract between the parties receiving the signal.

There are many equally important competition issues associated with a dominant player dictating a solution.


If the web is to endure as an open and economically viable platform, then it cannot be controlled by one company and a single privacy policy. SWAN (Secure Web Addressability Network) provides a community approach that enables multiple businesses and organizations to work together on the provision of pseudonymized identifiers and privacy. No single company or group of companies can dominate the solution. The governance model focuses on community before members or shareholders.

SWAN will be used and trusted based on its merits, not because a dominate business mandates that it must be used – SWAN is a choice.

Privacy by design

Businesses enter take it or leave it contracts when they use open source software. Many don’t even realize it. Our decade of experience in open source enabled us to ask “should identifiers or preferences be any different?”

This was the starting point for SWAN. We engaged with privacy lawyers to craft a template model set of terms that all recipients (the supply chain, if you will) of the identifiers and preferences must be legally bound by. It will be a breach of the agreement if a party were to not adopt these terms.

By adopting an open and community approach, there can be a period of consultation to settle these terms to ensure they work for the good actors who wish to do the right thing. It’s also important to ensure that they work in a proactive way for commercially minded privacy advocates, people, and regulators.

Global privacy control

With such an agreement in place, people can be certain that all the recipients of their data would be bound by a known set of legal terms.

Rather than having to know all the data controllers and processors at the point a person provides their consent, they would be consenting to share their pseudonymous information with parties bound by the same set of known legal terms. People could provide their consent once and not be repeatably asked for every web site (or application in the future) they visit. The Global Privacy Control project had already established this principle.


Internet features like the domain name system, secure certificates, or the data network just work. They were exciting when they were new. They are like the water in the tap or electricity. They are utilities.

Why should identifiers and privacy be any different? Why should corporations make excessive profits from their control over these utility features?

When designing SWAN we acknowledged that a utility layer for shared identifiers and preferences on which other services and features would be enabled was needed. It will be exciting when it’s new, but will become boring when it just works and enables these other services and features.


Web browsers and the W3C have a adopted a particularly narrow, engineering only, and short-sighted approach to privacy that is bad for competition and the future of the Open Web.

The initial SWAN implementation uses the very basic building blocks of the internet and web browsers. It works without JavaScript for example and across browsers.

Browsers that interfere with the signals SWAN stewards for people will require people to repeatably express these preferences for every browser session. Apple's Intelligent Tracking Prevention (ITP) will result in people being frustrated and will need to re-enter their choices. In time people will either turn off these features or choose a web browser that works harmoniously with SWAN.

SWAN has been designed so that web browsers can migrate the SWAN data model and the model terms into the web browser. They could provide the shared SWAN data only to parties that are bound by the SWAN model terms. New web browser standards will be required to support this in time, but such standards are conceptual, simple, and practical to create where there is a will from the web browser vendors.

The initial SWAN Operator model can and should be retired once all web browsers migrate the features of SWAN into the web browser and people’s privacy, preferences, and trust are ingrained in the future everyone wants.

To find out more and get involved, visit the SWAN website. You can also register for weekly 'drop-in' webinars which are ideal for those that want to know more or provide feedback.