BT and Privacy, Part 5: It's In The Policy

by , Feb 9, 2007, 4:45 PM
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As we wind down our series on privacy and BT, it is clear that many -- but not all -- in this industry believe that existing protections and safeguards are sufficient to protect companies and consumers.

Some providers, like AlmondNet and Tacoda, are conducting proactive campaigns. These efforts actually push the issue of privacy and tracking to the user on the ad networks themselves in order to explain BT technologies and offer quick opt-out functions. But most others are resting on their privacy policies and what they see as a growing comfort among digital users with anonymous tracking and serving technologies.

If this informal straw poll of BT’s top executives is any indication, there doesn’t appear to be a comprehensive interest in the field to push the issue at consumers. Generally, digital users are not complaining. As Dave Moore, CEO and chairman of 24/7 Real Media, tells us this week, it really isn’t that complicated for consumer to grasp. “If you frequently visit travel sites, then you will receive more travel ads,” he says. The 24/7 Web site privacy policy page offers a one-click option at the top for opting out that lets users distinguish between removing cookies from the BT network or from the search marketing system. We were un-cookied in about five seconds.

Although the new Internet Explorer 7 browser makes it easier to clear cookies, and spyware protection systems continue to flag some ad network cookies as suspect, the mania for cleaning out one’s cookies seems to have ebbed considerably in the past year. As Moore mentions, for all of the attention anti-spyware companies and the press give to privacy concerns, his massive ad network only generates a small number of inquiries from consumers.

BI: What specifically is 24/7 doing to give consumers more control over how they opt in or out of its network?

Moore: 24/7 Real Media provides notice of its practices through its privacy policy and those of its customers, and provides consumers the choice of an easy opt-out.  We also provide an easy means for consumers to contact us directly with any concerns, and we resolve all concerns promptly.

BI: Is there an opt-out function? Where is it? How does it work? What does it say?

Moore: Yes, we have an opt-out function that is clearly accessible through our privacy policy, and also through the Web site of the Network Advertising Initiative.

BI: Is consumer education about the nature of anonymous tracking, online cookies, and precisely what BT does necessary? Or is it asking too much for consumers to understand all of the ways in which digital media can track and target them?

Moore: Education of consumers about online targeting practices has been an ongoing effort for the past decade or so. The industry has done a lot to explain its practices, and privacy advocates and writers have also devoted a lot of time to the subject. Additionally, companies that offer cookie-management tools, in order to market their own products, have spent tens of millions of dollars educating, and indeed sometimes unduly alarming, consumers about ad-serving cookies.  Behavioral targeting is not a complex subject; if you frequently visit travel sites, then you will receive more travel ads.  Surveys have shown that a large majority of Internet users would rather see ads that are relevant to their interests.

BI: As BT technologies start to track search box entries and even social networking behaviors, it is inevitable that many people will get more concerned about the types of behaviors that are being tracked and used to profile them. This is a bit beyond just serving travel ads to people after having visited travel sites. Won’t more people get more concerned over this kind of tracking, even if it’s anonymous?

Moore: The use of non-personally identifiable BT data, even across social networks and search engines, is far less intrusive than the offline targeting methods based on personally identifiable data that have been widely accepted for several decades.

BI: Does the BT industry need some standardized way of dealing with consumer privacy concerns? A consistent opt-out process?

Moore: The Network Advertising Initiative, of which 24/7 Real Media is proud to be a founding member, has done an outstanding job creating a self-regulatory framework for dealing with consumer privacy concerns and developing a consistent opt-out process. Companies that are active in behavioral targeting should be full members of the NAI and abide by its policies.

BI: Dave Morgan of Tacoda has been quoted frequently warning that unless the industry gets proactive about privacy, the issue could “blow up” in their faces. Do you agree that privacy is a hot-button issue that could impact BT especially?

Moore: We agree that privacy is a hot-button issue, but we are proud of the industry's efforts to proactively address the issue.

BI: What is the temperature of consumers on this issue?

Moore: Cookie deletion statistics show that many consumers are interested in the issue and taking their own measures to address their concerns.  We receive only a handful of consumer inquiries each month. Many companies have done surveys or studies of cookie deletion, including Nielsen, Jupitermedia and Aquantive/Atlas.   In the surveys, it is generally the case that 90% or more of the respondents say they delete their cookies from time to time, and more than 50% say they delete cookies at least monthly.  Studies have suggested that in actuality the number and frequency of cookie deletions is lower than self-reported, but still quite significant.  This tells me that Internet users are well aware that cookies are being inserted on their Web browsers for ad tracking purposes, and taking steps to address their individual concerns as they see fit.

BI: At the FTC hearings last year, what was your sense about where politicians are on the issue of privacy in the digital age? Is there a serious threat of legislation on this -- or will the industry be encouraged to come up with its own answers?

Moore: We sense that legislators are interested in online privacy issues but also leery of trying to impose a regulatory solution on an ever-shifting technological problem.   The industry has done a terrific job of engaging and educating regulators and legislators about its activities and gotten them comfortable [with] supporting a self-regulatory regimen.

 

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