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Targeted Advertising and Your Privacy

Advertising Option IconThe subject of behavioral or “targeted” advertising is getting continued attention this year on Capitol Hill and in the EU. Legislators, privacy experts, consumer advocacy groups and leading technology companies are discussing privacy protection, consumer rights/choice, accountability, compliance and technology. The ultimate goal is to strike a balance between your individual privacy expectations with the economic benefits that gathering your personal information creates.

Behavioral advertising is directed at you specifically to sell you products and services. Advertisers or their third party partners capture information when you visit a website, including your IP address and the address of the webpage you’re viewing, to target ads to your interests. By using “cookies” and other techniques, a profile of your browsing history is built over time.

Studies have shown that most consumers are agreeable to receiving relevant targeted advertising; this idea can be useful and convenient and certainly less annoying than ad serving methods of the past. But Internet users need to have greater choice and control over online tracking and be shown that their personal data is respected. Site owners and third party tracking services need to improve privacy notices and statements that inform consumers of their cookie and tracking practices.

Do Not Track options

Last year, the US Federal Trade Commission recommended browser companies add a “Do Not Track” option to give users the ability to opt out of online advertising. Microsoft responded quickly with an announcement of IE9’s Tracking Protection Lists, Mozilla Firefox introduced a Do Not Track option and Google Chrome has an extension for opting out permanently from ad tracking cookies. This past May, Sen. Rockefeller proposed the Do-Not-Track Online Act of 2011, which would be enforced by the Federal Trade Commission if it passes.

Also in May, the European Union passed privacy regulations that require websites to get consent from EU users before tracking them around the rest of the web. So far, it’s unclear how various governments will enforce opt-in cookies, and things get really muddled because requirements will vary from country to country.

Self-regulatory options

WOT users should also be aware that many online ad companies are doing their utmost to protect consumer privacy without government intervention. They are voluntarily monitoring and enforcing compliance in a self-regulatory program initiated by a coalition of ad industry organizations. A tool being used is the blue “Advertising Option Icon,” which is displayed on or near any online ad that is the result of behavioral targeting. When you click on it, the symbol will link to a disclosure statement about how the ad was targeted and it gives you an opt-out option.

An alliance between the National Advertising Review Council and the Council of Better Business Bureaus, will determine whether a company committed a violation and recommend a compliance solution.

Certification options

One of WOT’s trusted sources for privacy, TRUSTe, is heavily invested in this discussion and has introduced a certification under the organization’s new third party data collection program – TRUSTed Data Collection. TRUSTe was also selected as a provider for the new IE9 Tracking Protection feature. Other organizations such as Evidon, formally known as the Better Advertising Project also provide services to help companies comply.

What does this mean for WOT users?

As always, it is up to every WOT user to decide what he/she considers trustworthy or not. It is a valid reason to rate a site poorly if you do not trust a website’s content or the organization behind a website. But online advertising and the policies that regulate it are evolving quickly and not all advertisers, ad exchanges, ad networks, ad platforms, data aggregators/exchanges, market research companies, and the like are created equally. When making a judgment about a privacy rating, please consider these things:

  • Is the website transparent about how they are collecting data?
  • Does the website explain for what reason they are collecting data?
  • Does the website offer people the option of limiting what they share and how much of their data is collected and used?
  • Is the information websites collect anonymous? Do they remove anything in their databases that could identify an individual?
  • Do they destroy information after they’ve used it and let cookies expire?
  • Does the website use the blue “Advertising Option Icon” or do they hold a data collection certificate that shows they are compliant with existing regulations and best practices?

We realize the average web user isn’t a privacy expert and we don’t expect you to go out and investigate random websites for privacy compliance. We encourage WOT users to share their experiences with the websites they already know, because you are uniquely qualified to do that. Being able to learn from other people’s experiences is the whole reason for this service.

Is there anything in particular that you look for when evaluating a website’s privacy practices? Do you use the Do Not Track options your browser provides? Let’s talk about it here.

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