"We think it's our obligation to step up to the plate and make sure users have some transparency about what's going on," said Jules Polonetsky, AOL's chief privacy officer.
For the effort, Time Warner's AOL will serve "hundreds of millions" of banner ads on its own proprietary sites and those of publishers in the company's network, Polonetsky said. Those ads will direct people to links where they can opt-out of participating in the company's behavioral targeting program, which serves ads to people based on specific Web sites they have visited.
But some advocates say that AOL's initiative doesn't go far enough.
"This is a meaningless gesture on the part of Time Warner," said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. "The time for educational campaigns has passed," he said, adding that Web companies should ask consumers for their affirmative consent before compiling profiles and serving ads based on the sites they visit.
Last November, Chester's group, along with the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, complained to the FTC that behavioral targeting threatens consumers' privacy. Since then, Google's proposed $3.1 billion acquisition of ad-serving company DoubleClick spurred the Electronic Privacy Information Center to join the call for curbs on the creation of detailed profiles of consumers for ad-targeting purposes.
More than just behavioral targeting, the Google-DoubleClick deal also raises the possibility that the company will serve ads based on a combination of DoubleClick's records about which Web sites people have visited with Google's records of a user's search history.
Later this week, the FTC will hold a two-day conference about online privacy for advocates and Web companies to publicly address some of these concerns.
AOL itself has previously been involved in one major privacy breach relating to search records. Last year, an AOL employee published search queries made by 650,000 users in a three-month period. Although the company did not publicly post the actual user IP addresses, some users' identities were still revealed by the queries themselves. Within days, The New York Times located and profiled one of the "anonymous" users whose search queries had been posted.
The company's current educational initiative about behavioral targeting quietly launched earlier this month with banner ads on AOL sites by its recently acquired behavioral targeting company Tacoda. Those banners say, "We're working with leading Web sites to deliver more relevant advertising and make protecting your privacy easier," and offer a link where people can click for more information.
Clicking through takes people to a page that describes the company's behavioral targeting program as follows: "We anonymously categorize Web surfing interests using a small text file in the browser called a cookie to deliver targeted advertising." That page also gives consumers instructions for opting-out of the ads.
Polonetsky says the company will experiment with different types of creative units and landing pages as the campaign continues in the next few months.