As more advertisers monitor every click of your mouse, should someone monitor the monitoring?
November 21, 2011 5:00 AM
By Deborah M. Todd Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
It's no secret they're following you.
Visit a website in search of a leather jacket or holiday snow globe, and ads for those items inevitably pop up at the next site you visit. Go to an out-of-state newspaper's website and see advertisements touting a Western Pennsylvania mom's wrinkle solution or auto insurance savings for Pennsylvania drivers.
What's happening is clear: Advertisers use data acquired by monitoring consumers' Internet activity to target goods and services to individuals most likely to buy their product.
What isn't entirely clear is how advertisers are permitted to use the data and what legal limits, if any, should be imposed on the practice.
Currently, there are no laws against Internet tracking or online behavioral advertising, and the scope of the practice has grown exponentially over the past three years, said Rob Shavell, president and CEO of Abine, a Boston-based Internet privacy company. Abine is the creator of the Targeted Advertising Cookie Opt-Out add-on tool, or TACO, used by Web browser Mozilla Firefox.
"They've changed the entire Internet without showing anything is different," Mr. Shavell said of advertisers. "Nothing is different to the user, but what they don't realize is the whole advertising industry created a tech revolution that has gotten much more sophisticated, that works behind the scenes to track users."
The Federal Trade Commission is considering a bill introduced in May by U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., to create a Do Not Trackoption similar to the Do Not Call list that would allow consumers to universally opt out of third-party tracking.
The bill calls for creation of a universal tool to enable consumers to opt out of all Internet tracking and prohibits tracking of consumers who choose to opt out. The bill also proposes that any legislation passed should consider plans to educate consumers about the right to opt out and set standards for collection, use and storage of data.
Companies that violate the bill's terms could face charges.
In an effort to respond to consumer complaints and FTC concerns, the Digital Advertising Alliance, which represents more than 400 advertising companies nationwide, introduced its Self Regulatory Principles for Online Behavioral Advertising in 2009.
The principles discouraged data collection for purposes beyond online behavioral advertising and encouraged those using online behavioral advertising to inform consumers of opt-out options.
The program also led to the creation of a blue "Ad Choices" advertising option icon last year. The icon appears in the corner of certain online ads and provides a link to sites where consumers can opt out of tracking.
This month, the alliance introduced a new set of guidelines called the Principles for Multi-Site Data, which prohibit data collection to determine eligibility for health care, employment, credit or insurance. The guidelines also ask organizations to comply with the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act and ask companies collecting information for purposes beyond online behavioral advertising to inform consumers of their actions and provide options for control.
Peter Kosmala, managing director of the Digital Advertising Alliance, said companies found in violation of the principles will be ordered to bring themselves in compliance and could be reported to the FTC or another legal entity for action if they fail to comply.
He said the organization is in the process of creating a major ad campaign to promote AD Choices, and that greater transparency and choice will help both advertisers and consumers.
"The object isn't to opt everyone out of all advertising. We want to give them the information they need to make educated decisions," he said.
According to a Carnegie Mellon University CyLab study released this month, the tools currently available make it difficult for consumers to know what they have opted out of and if they've opted out at all.
The study, titled "Why Johnny Can't Opt Out, a Usability Evaluation of Tools to Limit Online Behavioral Advertising," showed that when Web users tried to implement nine opt-out tools available to consumers, most didn't know if they had properly opted out of online behavioral advertising, couldn't differentiate between advertisers' cookies and cookies used for personal profiles, and weren't sure if advertisers would comply with do not track requests made through browsers.
A spokesman for the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation said the study affirms the need to pass Mr. Rockefeller's bill.
"Given that consumers seem confused about the various tools they can use to protect their privacy, the bill would provide consumers with an easy-to-use mechanism to guard their personal information," the committee said.
Mr. Kosmala said the alliance's principles and some opt-out tools were works-in-progress that can be improved, but laws could hold back a thriving Internet marketplace rather than protect consumers who have options to protect themselves.
"Any bill or attempt to restrict or confine [online behavioral advertising] will be an unfortunate result, particularly in the economic conditions we find ourselves in today," he said.
Mr. Shavell, the Internet privacy expert, said some form of independent oversight or a more open market for opt-out tools are the best ways for consumers to protect themselves because advertisers and websites are ultimately designed to protect their own bottom line.
"At Google, 99 percent of revenues made last quarter were from advertising," he said. "They can't be the company expected to stick up for the user."