Privacy Watchdog Faults Harte Hanks, Dropbox And Panasonic

Cloud storage company Dropbox, electronics giant Panasonic and marketing agency Harte Hanks failed to comply with the ad industry's privacy code, a unit of the Better Business Bureau said Thursday.

All three of the companies allegedly allowed online visitors to be tracked by ad networks (or other third parties), but didn't offer "enhanced" notice explaining online behavioral targeting. To provide "enhanced" notice, companies must add a separate link that takes people directly to a site where they can opt out of receiving behaviorally targeted ads; that link is supposed to appear on every page where data about visitors is collected.

The new cases by the BBB's Online Accountability Unit come nearly three years after it warned publishers to provide “clear, meaningful and prominent” links on all pages where third parties -- like ad networks and exchanges -- collect data about visitors in order to serve them with targeted ads.

Harte Hanks allegedly offered a link to its privacy policy, but didn't say it allowed ad networks to collect data from visitors. "Since the 'privacy' link did not lead directly to a disclosure of third-party [interest-based advertising] activity on the Harte Hanks website, it did not constitute a compliant enhanced notice link," the enforcement unit wrote in its decision

At the time of the investigation, Harte Hanks was running a retargeting campaign aimed at serving ads to marketing professionals who visited the site, according to a company spokesperson.

The marketing firm resolved the watchdog's objections by adding a "Cookies & Advertising” link to its site.

Panasonic's site had a link to its privacy policy, but didn't describe how ad networks collect data about consumers in order to send them targeted ads, according to the watchdog. Instead, Panasonic allegedly described how companies draw on data for analytics purposes.

Dropbox likewise had a link to its privacy policy, but didn't offer "enhanced" notice about behavioral targeting, according to the BBB's Online Accountability Unit.

In an unusual twist, all three of the cases announced Thursday originated with complaints by consumers. It's more common for the watchdog to bring cases based on its own observations, according to Genie Barton, vice president and director of the BBB's Online Interest-Based Advertising Accountability Program. "The majority of actionable cases are from our monitoring," she says.

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