None too soon. The consumer interest in BT has shaken up publishers enough that many now are trying to address the issue of user control over data. For now at least, this amounts to a staggering cacophony of voices and competing terms. After several months off from his usual patrol of privacy policies and opt-out programs online, Opt-Out Man put his cape back on this week to do a flyover of publisher and network responses to the growing concerns about user tracking.
Opt-Out Man wishes the industry could settle on a euphemism. Everyone is running away from "behavioral targeting" about as fast as Democrats in Congress now dodge the term "public option," but no one can settle on reasonably non-threatening language. The major search and content networks are all over the place. Earlier this year Google introduced us to the idea of "interest-based advertising," and a hard-to-find Ad Preferences setting in user accounts. Months later the Ad Preferences area is still hard to find. The explanatory video is the same. And the tree of opt-out and opt-in options is still too complex for most users. But worse for Google, I am not sure if the company's cookie is working properly. Despite my habitual use of its search box, its iGoogle portal and countless AdSense partners, the Preferences page says it isn't tracking a thing on me.
Yahoo gives us a choice of two alternatives to BT, "ad matching" and "ad customization." It doesn't matter, really. In either case the "Ad Match Opt-Out" page is just another small-type notification page that is as consumer-friendly as a side-effects note from pharmaceutical manufacturers. Yahoo also gives users no granular control over their profile here.
Microsoft calls BT "personalized advertising" on a page that is only marginally better than Yahoo's. Microsoft does more carefully explain the data that is being gathered. The company also admits in its explanation that opting out of ad targeting is not opting out of tracking. Microsoft will still collect information on your habits. You will get personalized content, but not targeted ads. In recognition of Microsoft's own cross-platform ambitions, theirs is the only service I have seen that allows you to opt out of targeting on any device. One button can opt out of all log-ins involving a Windows Live ID.
AOL has "Mr. Penguin," the cartoon character it introduced earlier this year to explain BT to users. To the penguin's credit, the one-minute video does a credible job of walking the user through the cookie and tracking process. It is a lot more efficient than Google's antiseptic white-board treatment. AOL also pushes people over to the SafetyClicks blog, which is more geared toward parents protecting their kids from unsuitable content, cyber-bullying and social network faux pas. Unlike Microsoft, which volunteers a cross-platform opt-out, AOL loses the user in a morass of ad networks. AOL Advertising has its own cookie opt-out. Another AOL page pushes you to the NAI. For the consumer unacquainted with AOL's business model, which spans content and advertising, it is entirely unclear what you are opting out from.
This is the industry that gave us Don Draper, right? Creativity and consumer relationships are the backbone of advertising, yes? Publishing is all about editorial innovation and compelling storytelling, no? I can only guess that the current opt-out routines are a holding maneuver by some publishers as they await standardized buttons, language and explanations from the consortium of ad associations now working on the problem. Or at least I hope these opt-out programs are placeholders for something that actually speaks to consumers clearly, collaboratively, about their ownership over data. As it stands, it looks as if most of the major online publishing entities are barely trying to open an honest conversation with users about their data.