Online marketers 'need to self-regulate'

21 September 2010

BRUSSELS: European Commissioner Neelie Kroes has warned marketers that they face tighter regulations if they do not provide greater online privacy protections for consumers.

Ms Kroes, responsible for the Commission's Digital Agenda, told the European Roundtable on the Benefits of Online Advertising for Consumers that users should be offered a "user friendly way" to deal with online tracking software.

In 2009, the Commission amended its privacy and electronic communications directive, which includes rules on users' online privacy.

The directive must be implemented by EU member states' governments by mid-2011.

"I welcome the clear commitment from all the leading business organisations to work with us towards a self-regulatory regime compliant with the law," Kroes said.

"[But] I also have to say that the ideas so far tabled fall short of meeting the principles I have set out. Given that time is very short to reach a self-regulatory solution, the industry needs to act quickly.

"The alternative is a more interventionist approach."

When visited or clicked on, many websites and online ads drop "cookies" onto visitors' computers in order to track their online habits for a short period.

This information, which is anonymous, is valuable to advertisers as they can use it to serve more precisely-targeted ads.

Currently, many online publishers detail their policies on cookies in parts of their websites which are unread by most users.

Alternative methods of making policies clear include a mandatory "opt-in" option allowing users to specify at the outset whether or not they wish to receive cookies.

This choice could be made via a pop-up window that appears when the user first visits a site.

But Kroes suggested in her speech that she did not support radical changes of this nature.

"Obviously we want to avoid solutions which would have a negative impact on the user experience," she said.

"On that basis it would be prudent to avoid options such as recurring pop-up windows. On the other hand, it will not be sufficient to bury the necessary information deep in a website's privacy policies.

"We need to find a middle way."

Data sourced from Financial Times/European Commission; additional content by Warc staff