IAB UK’s “Good Practice Principles” on Behavioural Targeting: Alice in Wonderland Meets Online Data Collection

Last week in Brussels at a EU Consumers Summit, Google and other interactive ad companies pointed to the new Interactive Advertising Bureau/UK “Good Practice Principles for online behavioural advertising” as a model for meaningful self-regulation.  The companies that have endorsed the principles include  AOL/Platform A, AudienceScience, Google, Microsoft Advertising, NebuAd, Phorm, Specific Media, Yahoo! SARL, and Wunderloop.   The message sent to EU regulators was, in essence, don’t really worry about threats to privacy from online profiling and behavioural targeting.  But a review of the Principles suggest that there is a serious lack of “truth in advertising” when it comes to being truly candid about data collection and interactive marketing.  These Principles are insufficient–and are really a political attempt to foreclose on meaningful consumer policy safeguards.

Indeed, when one examines the new online “consumer guide” which accompanies the Principles,  one has a kind of Alice in Wonderland moment.  That’s because instead of being candid about the real purpose of behavioral advertising–and the system of interactive marketing it is a part of–the IAB paints an unreal and deliberately cheery picture where data collection, profiling, tracking, and targeting are just harmless techniques designed to give you a better Internet experience.   UK consumers–and policymakers–deserve something more forthright.

First, the IAB conveniently ignores the context in which behavioural targeting is just one data collection technique.  As they know, online marketers are creating what they term a “media and marketing ecosystem.”  A truly honest “Good Practice Principles” would address all the principal ways online marketers target consumers.  That would include, as IAB/UK knows well, such approaches as social media marketing, in-game targeting, online video, neuromarketing, engagement, etc.  A real code would address issues related to the use of behavioural data targeting and other techniques when used for such areas as finance (mortgages, loans, credit cards); health products; and targeting adolescents.

The IAB/UK also fails to reconcile how it describes behavioural targeting to its members and what it says to consumers and policymakers.  For example, the group’s glossary defines behavioural targeting as:  “A form of online marketing that uses advertising technology to target web users based on their previous behaviour. Advertising creative and content can be tailored to be of more relevance to a particular user by capturing their previous decision making behaviour (eg: filling out preferences or visiting certain areas of a site frequently) and looking for patterns.“  But its new “Good Practice” consumer guide says that “Online behavioural advertising is a way of serving advertisements on the websites you visit and making them more relevant to you and your interests. Shared interests are grouped together based upon previous web browsing activity and web users are then served advertising which matches their shared interests. In this way, advertising can be made as relevant and useful as possible.”

Incredibly, the IAB/UK claims that “the information used for targeting adverts is not personal, in that it does not identify you – the user – in the real world. Data about your browsing activity is collected and analysed anonymously.”  Such an argument flies in the face of what the signatories of the “Good Practice Principles” really tell their online ad customers.  For example, Yahoo in the UK explains that its “acclaimed behavioural targeting tool allows advertisers to deliver specific targeted ads to consumers at the point of purchase.”  Yahoo has used behavioural targeting in the UK to help sell mortgages and other financial products.  Microsoft’s UK Ad Solutions tells customers it can provide a variety of behavioural targeting tools so it “can deliver messaging to the people who are actively looking to engage with what you’re offering…With Re-messaging we can narrow our audience by finding the people who have already visited you. It means we can ensure they always stay in touch and help create continual engagement with your brand…Profile Targeting can help you find the people you’re looking for by who they are, where they are and when you want to be seen by them.”  Time Warner’s Platform A/AOL says Through our Behavioural Network, we can target your most valuable visitors across our network, earning you additional revenues, or simply fulfil your own campaign obligations.  By establishing certain user traits or demographics within your audience, we are able to target those individuals with the most relevant advertising (tied into their common characteristics), or simply reach those same users in a different environment.”  Or Audience Science’s UK office that explains “While other behavioural targeting technologies simply track page visits, the AudienceScience platform analyzes multiple indicators of intent:

•  Which pages and sections they have visited

•  What static and dynamic content they have read

•  What they say about themselves in registration data

•  Which search terms they use

•  What IP data indicates about them, including geography, SIC code, Fortune 500 rank, specific Internet domains,   and more

Because AudienceScience processes so many indicators of intent, it enables you to create precisely targeted audience segments for advertisers.”  And Google, which knows that the UK is “arguably the most advanced online marketplace in the world” has carefully explained to its UK customers all the data they collect and make available for powerful online targeting.

The Notice, Choice and Education “Good Practice” scheme relies on an ineffective opt-out.  Instead of real disclosure and consumer/citizen control, we have a band-aid approach to privacy online.  The IAB also resorts to a disingenuous scare tactic when it suggests that without online marketing, the ability of the Internet to provide “content online for free” would be harmed.  No one has said there shouldn’t be advertising–what’s been said is that it must be done in a way which respects privacy, the citizen, and the consumer.   Clearly, the new IAB/UK code isn’t a model that can be relied on to protect the public.  UK regulators must play a more proactive role to ensure privacy and consumer welfare online is meaningfully protected.

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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