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Online behavioral advertising opt-out procedures misleading

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Thu, Jul 23, 2009 at 10:21 pm

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Earlier this month  the Network Advertising Initiative (NIA), a trade association that includes some of the biggest online advertising companies like Google, Yahoo!, Microsoft and AOL, praised industry developed self-regulatory principles to govern "behavioral" advertising.

The association claimed NAI’s experience "shows the effectiveness of self-regulation in providing consumers with notice and choice about online behavioral advertising." In fact what the principles show is the sort of abuse that happens when you let the fox guard the chicken coop.

Behavioral advertising targets ads based on where you’ve been on the Web. Essentially your behavior and surfing habits are tracked to determine what ads you’ll see.  Advertisers maintain this is helpful and consumer friendly.  Most people I know think that an online advertising company looking over their shoulder, following them around the Web, is intrusive — if not down right creepy.

So, the industry ballyhooed principles make a big deal of the fact that you should be able to opt out of being tracked.  Never mind that it’s not all that intuitive to opt out on most online advertisers’ Websites and that the truly consumer friendly mode would be to opt-in only when you thought it would be useful.

NAI is touting the opt-out principle as consumer friendly and has set up a Website where you can opt out of being tracked by all its members.

But as just revealed by Christopher Soghoian, a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, the NAI opt-out process is misleading at best and downright deceptive at worst.

In order to opt out, a cookie — a small bit of computer code — is placed on the user’s browser.  It tells the online advertiser not to track Web surfing by that browser.  Every cookie must have an expiration date. This is where it gets misleading.

As Soghoian explains in an open letter to NAI executive director Charles Curran:

"I would like to draw your attention to the widely varying expiration dates for the behavioral advertising opt out cookies supplied by the various NAI member advertisers. The opt out cookies for some sites last as little as six months, while others last as long as sixty years. This variability is not communicated to consumers, and as a result, many are unlikely to know that they must revisit the NAI web site and re-opt out every six months in order to maintain total opt out coverage."

"I urge you to update the NAI Self-Regulatory Code of Conduct to require that your members adhere to a reasonable minimum expiration age for opt out cookies (I suggest at least five years). I also ask that you add text to the NAI opt out page to inform consumers of the shortest opt out cookie expiration, and make it clear that they will need to re-visit the site at that time in order to renew the opt out cookies."

Despite its self-congratulatory rhetoric, the NAI guidelines aren’t transparent and don’t clearly inform consumers about what is going on.  As I said, the NAI opt-out process is misleading at best and simply deceptive at worst.

I’m glad Soghoian did his research and wrote the Network Advertising Alliance, but this is really an issue that the Federal Trade Commission needs to examine in depth.

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This post was written by:

John M. Simpson

- who has written 361 posts on Inside Google.

John M. Simpson is a leading voice on technological privacy and stem cell research issues. His investigations this year of Google’s online privacy practices and book publishing agreements triggered intense media scrutiny and federal interest in the online giant’s business practices. His critique of patents on human embryonic stem cells has been key to expanding the ability of American scientists to conduct stem cell research. He has ensured that California’s taxpayer-funded stem cell research will lead to broadly accessible and affordable medicine and not just government-subsidized profiteering. Prior to joining Consumer Watchdog in 2005, he was executive editor of Tribune Media Services International, a syndication company. Before that, he was deputy editor of USA Today and editor of its international edition. Simpson taught journalism a Dublin City University in Ireland, and consulted for The Irish Times and The Gleaner in Jamaica. He served as president of the World Editors Forum. He holds a B.A. in philosophy from Harpur College of SUNY Binghamton and was a Gannett Fellow at the Center for Asian and Pacific Studies at the University of Hawaii. He has an M.A. in Communication Management from USC’s Annenberg School for Communication.

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