Last week, shortly before the long holiday weekend, a task force of the four major ad groups (the American Association of Advertising Agencies, Association of National Advertisers, Direct Marketing Association, and Interactive Advertising Bureau) issued new self-regulatory principles for online behavioral advertising, or tracking people online and serving them ads based on sites visited.
But the new guidelines, much like the older Network Advertising Initiative standards, mostly endorse a notice and opt-out approach. That is, the groups say most companies that target consumers should inform people about the practice and let them opt out of tracking -- though rather than using the words notice/opt-out, the document talks about "transparency" and "control."
The guidelines also would require some type of affirmative action before data is collected via ISP-based targeting (or adware or toolbars -- though those programs already require users to affirmatively download them).
Additionally, the ad groups also would continue allowing marketers to collect "sensitive" data -- which they define narrowly as financial account numbers, social security numbers, pharmaceutical prescriptions, or medical records about a specific individual -- provided users consent.
Not surprisingly, consumer advocates like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Jeff Chester (executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy) are continuing to call for regulation. Chester argues that companies shouldn't target consumers without first getting users' affirmative consent. Other groups like the Center for Democracy & Technology have pushed for a comprehensive do-not-track registry. But it's not just nonprofits and advocacy groups that are criticizing the guidelines. Industry observers like Saul Hansell of The New York Times and Ryan Singel of Wired also are taking issue with them.
"As best as I can tell, the proposal largely codifies the practices engaged in today," Hansell writes. "The groups, led by the Interactive Advertising Bureau, decided not to endorse any of the ideas that have been actively discussed recently that might give users more meaningful information and control over how their behavior is being tracked."
Singel writes that, rather than issue a 41-page report, the industry "should have saved the paper and just hung a sign around its neck saying 'Regulate me.' "
"This was the internet advertising business's opportunity to show the feds that they could take care of the problem. Instead, the result came out not much different than it would have been if the feds had the Big Three automakers define safety and gas mileage standards on their own," Singel argues. "Clearly the online ad industry can't collectively act like adults, so let's treat them like the greedy children that they are and give them some rules to follow."