US Advertisers, Regulators Mull Online Privacy

05 November 2007

WASHINGTON DC: A Federal Trade Commission forum to discuss online behavioral targeting heard a pledge from comissioner Jon Leibowitz that there will be more federal scrutiny of web advertising.

He told the two-day event, attended last week by privacy advocates and major marketers, that he wanted consumers to opt-in to online tracking rather than having to take action to opt-out.

"People should have dominion over their computers The current 'don't ask, don't tell' in online tracking and profiling has to end."

In addition, Leibowitz warned that standard privacy policies might have to be introduced because web users are currently bewildered by the plethora of companies' attempts to state their case.

His remarks were made in the light of increasingly sophisticated methods of targeting individuals, such as Google's practise of showing ads based on email keywords used by GMail customers.

Social networking site MySpace uses information provided by members themselves to help marketers select appropriate messages.

Privacy advocates are deeply concerned about online ads seen by children and teenagers, who are "living their social lives and personal lives" on the web, according to Professor Kathryn Montgomery.

She claimed that marketers treated the lives and personal details of these young people - posted on blogs and social networking sites - as "open books".

While Amina Fazlullah, a lawyer at the US Public Interest Research Group added: "In the brick and mortar world, if you're asked for information, you can say 'no'."

Advertisers, on the other hand, feel the government has no business interfering in their business.

Randall Rothenberg, president/ceo of the Interactive Advertising Bureau even went so far as to say privacy regulation would stifle an "extraordinary pattern of innovation".

Executives from several online firms claimed they could improve the quality and accuracy of their web ad campaigns without compromising basic privacy principles.

Tim Armstrong, Google's president of advertising and commerce for North America said: "Privacy and trust are probably the two words that are going to make the internet the healthiest in the future."

Ever the loyal Googlista, he could not restrain a plug: "User trust and loyalty are probably the number one thing we focus on at Google."

The online search titan's controversial $3.1 billion (€2.14bn; £1.48bn) acquisition of web advertising firm DoubleClick was also alluded to by commissioner Leibowitz. The FTC is currently reviewing the deal's impact on competition.

Data sourced from New York Times; additional content by WARC staff