In the latest development, the European Commission, which is tasked with enforcing Europe's broad privacy protection law, has scheduled a hearing in London for next Friday. That meeting will take place two days after a U.S. Senate subcommittee is slated to explore online advertising and privacy.
The European roundtable, "Consumer Policy in the Digital Age," will address the commercial targeting and profiling of users, among other issues. "The very rich dataset about users that can be collected over the internet and other digital platforms opens new potential for ... targeting," according to a paper prepared by the roundtable organizers and seen by Online Media Daily. "But this raises issues of the awareness that consumers should have of their data being collected and the level of consent or discretion that they should be entitled to," the paper continues.
The European Union's sweeping privacy law limits companies' ability to collect personal data about people, so it's possible that behavioral targeting companies could face tougher restrictions in Europe than in the U.S. But many Web-based ad companies operate globally, and from a public relations point of view, it would be difficult for them to give U.S. consumers less privacy protection than European Web users. Search giant Google already said it would limit the length of time it keeps logs by IP address in response to pressure from European regulators.
The London meeting comes as privacy advocates in the U.S. and U.K. are hoping to prevent Internet service providers from going ahead with plans to share data about consumers' Web activity with online ad companies. Advocates fear that such platforms are especially intrusive, because Internet access companies know every Web site that users visit and every search query they make. Older forms of online targeting only track users across a limited number of Web sites.
Ad companies say that the tracking is "anonymous" because they don't collect information about people's names or addresses, but advocates say it's possible to figure out people's identities by examining clickstream data. Digital rights advocates argue that at a minimum, Internet service providers need to make sure consumers are notified about the plans and can give meaningful consent.
In the U.S., Charter Communications' plan to share information with NebuAd has spurred privacy advocates to allege that the companies are violating federal wiretap laws. Two lawmakers, Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) and Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) have asked Charter to delay its plans while they gather more information.
Meanwhile, news that Phorm conducted secret tests of a similar platform with U.K. Internet service provider British Telecom in 2006 continued to reverberate. This week, the European Commission reportedly said it would examine the test.