Yahoo! fails to address privacy concerns about its behavioral targeting apparatus. Letter to Hill not candid

The spinmeisters who wrote Yahoo!’s letter to House leaders didn’t do a real service for the troubled online company. They weaved and dodged the issue. Yahoo! took a trick from George Orwell by trying to reframe the privacy-threatening interactive data collection & targeting system by calling it “customized advertising.” Yahoo! also tried to hide behind the First Amendment by suggesting, as others have done, that without online ad revenues we would lose what “has made Internet content and services available to millions of people in the United States and around the world(3) – for free.”

Hold it Yahoo! No one is saying there shouldn’t be online advertising and targeting. But what is needed is full control by individual users who can decide what can be collected and how it should be used. That’s called opt-in, and it’s the approach Yahoo should have announced–instead it is trying to protect itself by resorting to an “opt-out” process that it knows won’t really safeguard users.

Yahoo should have told Congress exactly what it collects and how it does it. For example, they should have told Congress what it said to advertisers in 2007: That “Yahoo’s pinpoint targeting capabilities can zero in on a large concentration of precisely the prospects you want.” They should have added that in the same document they explained that advertisers could use Yahoo to “Motivate consumer behaviors (registration, trial, purchase, store visit, frequency, brand loyalty).” It could have explained the “data collection ad units” it offers to advertisers. Missing too, for example, was any discussion of so-called Yahoo “Smart Ads.” The company should have told Congress that these behavioral ads provide “Ease of micro-targeting and segmentation of campaigns…Using an offer management database and user insights…”

Instead of claiming that it doesn’t really do local targeting, Yahoo should have cited from its “Spot Marketing” materials, telling Congress about its “4 Steps to Local Media Efficiency…Reach!–Use Geo/Demo targeting on a State, DMA or Zip Code Basis; Relevance!–Behavioral Targeting, Yahoo! Maps and Contextually Relevant Properties; Creativity!–Maximize Engagement By Combining The Best of Offline & Online Creative Into A Single Rch Media Ad Unit; Insights!–Measure Campaign Effectiveness With Yahoo’s Analytics Suite Including Rich Media Engagement Metrics.”

Yahoo could also have told Congress what it says to pharmaceutical and health marketers:
Treat with Surgical Precision.
Utilize purchase data from Yahoo! / AC Nielsen Consumer Direct to target actual buyers of related and competing products – while monitoring offline sales impact.

Find consumers by health condition with Yahoo!’s anonymous Behavioral Targeting – drawn from search, editorial, registration and more.”

Yahoo should have done better, especially at this time of real crisis over its future and management. By the way, we also believe that Yahoo was engaged in doing political damage control. With the Department of Justice currently reviewing the proposed Google/Yahoo joint venture, we think Yahoo is attempting to head off concerns about the merging of two of the world’s largest data sets on user behavior.

Author: jeff

Jeff Chester is executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. A former journalist and filmmaker, Jeff's book on U.S. electronic media politics, entitled "Digital Destiny: New Media and the Future of Democracy" was published by The New Press in January 2007. He is now working on a new book about interactive advertising and the public interest.

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