Optimizing User Choice: The Continuing Adventures Of Opt-Out Man
As Facebook controversies and the ongoing legislative and regulatory debates over privacy move the issue of personal data control onto the front pages of newspapers and Web sites, consumers are engaging with the issue in a new way. In the past I have done periodic passes of the opt-out processes in place at the major content and ad network providers, but it seems appropriate this time to approach the process from a typical consumer perspective. How would a concerned user try to get a toehold on the data collection problem and attempt to opt out of something -- anything -- from a cold start?
We often discuss the challenge of ad networks being able to intercept and educate those online about the data collection issue. There seems to be no easy way for an ad infrastructure, which is invisible to users, somehow to surface itself and start a meaningful conversation about how their data is being collected and used. The proposed ad tagging system from the Interactive Advertising Bureau and associated organizations is a start. Its effectiveness remains to be seen.
But what about users who are being sensitized to the privacy problem by recent news stories and the very public Facebook saga? My guess is they probably would come at it from the same starting point they use for just about everything they do online: search. Time for Opt-Out Man to go Googling.
When I do a simple search of "opt-out," I get a morass of results from all over the online environment of networks, news, vendors and organizations. Wikipedia's opt-out entry leads the list, but its short piece is focused more on telemarketing and email than display targeting. There are anti-spyware preventers in this mix of results, old news stories, and even a link to an opt-out page from the Center for Democracy and Technology that seems to date back to 2001 (and that is one of the top search results). The most useful pan-network opt-out tool, the Network Advertising Initiative, doesn't appear until the fourth organic result. Google's own result links to the Google general Privacy Center, where you can do a full-opt-out or head to the more detailed Ad Preferences Center.
"Advertising opt-out" did not produce much better search results overall, but the direct link to the NAI's aggregated opt-out page does float to the top. Arguably, the NAI remains the most effective and instructive opt-out mechanism consumers can use. The site is nominally more friendly than it was last time I checked. It now boasts almost 50 networks, exchanges, DSPs, and data providers from which a consumer can opt out individually or en masse. New to the site is a video walk-through that explains the process in a relatively neutral way. The video covers adequately what behavioral advertising does and how the opt-out procedure works, although it leaves fuzzy and unexplained the kinds of cookies and advertising the NAI opt-out doesn't embrace.
A key weakness of the NAI index is that most of the individual company descriptions (I presume provided by the networks themselves) are marketing gibberish to most consumers. For instance: "MediaMath is the leading online media trading company, offering agencies and their advertisers unprecedented reach and performance through one relationship." What are consumers to make of this? What is a pitch to marketers doing in a site that is supposed to educate consumers?
The opt-out and ad preferences pages from some of the major engines, networks and portals do float up into search results when the interested consumer starts searching against more granular terms. But where do they land? While I have recently covered the ad preferences systems at Yahoo and Google, a new one to me, the Microsoft "Personalized Advertising," popped up this time.
The page is a bit maddening. The stultifying, text-heavy affair lets you "opt-out" of receiving targeted ads but not opt out of the actual data collection. It says: "Even if you choose not to receive personalized advertising, Microsoft will continue to collect the same information as you browse the web and use our online services. However, this information and any information collected from you in the past won't be used for displaying personalized ads." There is an element of "nyah-nyah" to this. Go ahead and opt out, they seem to be saying. Won't matter much. Curiously, Microsoft actually added a more consumer-friendly front end to its privacy program that seems to be tied to the proposed universal "Ad Choice" icon that the IAB and others propose to have attached to many ads and sites.
That landing page from the ads themselves included videos of Microsoft discussing its attitudes towards privacy and data collection and explanations for behavioral advertising, but ultimately users are led to the same unfriendly opt-out page.
Microsoft's path to opt out pretty much embodies the general problem Opt-Out Man encounters at almost every turn. We seem to be eons away from a clean, accessible, and clear pathway to user control of data. At the very least, networks and portals, and the various advertising associations involved in crafting privacy programs, etc., should be optimizing for easy discoverability. And then the paths toward opt-out/in have to be consistently simple and clean throughout the process.
How ironic that the marketing and advertising industries that make their money intercepting users, optimizing discoverability, and crafting accessible, compelling messaging all hit a wall when it comes to talking with consumers about their data.