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Curbs Urged For Behavioral Ads

By BBC NEWS

Mon, Aug 31, 2009 at 11:27 am

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A powerful alliance of privacy and consumer groups
have likened behavioral advertising to "being followed by an invisible
stalker."

They now want Congress to curtail the practice of tracking consumers online to tailor ads more effectively.

Yahoo, Microsoft and Google all use targeted online advertisements.

"It’s not just about the right ad at the right time, it’s about
creating a profile about you," said the Centre for Digital Democracy’s
Jeffrey Chester.

"These companies want to know about your likes and dislikes, if you
are Hispanic, do you vote, are you on a low income or a high income,
where do you travel, what do you like to read.

"It’s about a system that not only targets and influences the
products you buy but is also a powerful and invisible system of digital
persuasion designed to change attitudes and awareness," Mr Chester told
BBC News.

The coalition of ten organisations is expected to call on the
government to allow consumers to "opt in" rather than "opt out" of such
advertising models.

It will also seek to ensure no data is collected around financial or health matters. The key, many say, is transparency.

"An individual’s data belongs to them and before these companies
track you all over the internet, they need to be transparent about what
they are doing and how they intend to use that information," said John
Simpson, consumer advocate with the Consumer Watchdog.

Tracking

The call to put limits on such advertising comes as the House
Commerce Committee is drafting legislation to improve consumer privacy
online.

Congress held hearings on the issue in June. Testimony was provided by Facebook, Google and Yahoo.

Google search with a close-up of an eye

While Yahoo and Microsoft have used behavioural advertising for some
time, Google waited until March of this year to employ what is also
referred to as "internet-based advertising".

In general the system uses a cookie – a small piece of text that
lives inside a web browser – to track users as they visit different
websites.

This information is then used to target online advertising campaigns
at consumers because they tend to result in higher online ad return
rates.

That means a user who is a keen traveller and visits lots of travel sites would be shown more travel-related ads.

"Golden egg"

A coalition of America’s marketing industry trade bodies,
representing about 5,000 companies, published a set of seven principles
in July to address concerns around the issue.

"The vast majority of what happens online is truly anonymous and all
marketers and publishers are trying to do is deliver an ad that has
some relevancy to the person viewing it at a certain time," Mike
Zaneis, vice president of public policy for the Interactive Advertising Bureau told BBC News.

"The beautiful thing is they don’t have to click on that advert, or pay attention to it or do anything."

While Mr Zaneis agreed more has to be done to educate consumers
about the issue, he also warned that pushing for a blanket "opt in"
measure would be disastrous.

"A broad ‘opt in’ would be a sea change and it would be a recipe for disaster. It would kill the goose laying the golden egg. The goose is the internet and the golden egg is the free content
and services that consumers enjoy and that would be diminished," said
Mr Zaneis.

Other organisations included in this broad alliance include the
Consumers Union, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Privacy Lives, Privacy
Rights Clearinghouse, U.S. Public Interest Research Group, World
Privacy Forum, Privacy Times and the Consumer Federation of America.

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