A Behavorial Targeting Example Shows Why Privacy Laws are Required, including a New and More Accurate Definition of Personally Identifiable Information

Interclick, “one of the largest advertising networks in the U.S., reported higher revenues today.  The company says that it collects “non-personally identifiable information (non-PII)” via cookies.  Here’s what Interclick considers, like other online advertisers, non-PII: “On the interCLICK network, we collect non-personally identifiable information (non-PII) such as web sites visited, content viewed, ad interaction, interaction with advertiser websites, IP addresses, search terms used, and other click and browsing behavior. Additionally, we may collect non-PII technical information including IP address, OS, browser type, language settings.

Meanwhile, Interclick’s behavioral targeting “option” for advertisers explains that its: “innovative behavioral targeting filters allow you to target the right individual users at the right time, increasing the effectiveness of your campaigns. With over 350 behavioral categories, interCLICK can get as precise as you want.

We segment users based on observed behaviors into 3 interest levels: slightly, moderately and very. Furthermore we use frequency and recency to classify these interest as short, mid, or long term interests. As the user navigates throughout our network of sites, we continually adjust their profile based on anonymous observations, assuring the accuracy of our profiles.” It offers “Behavioral Segmentswhich allows online advertisers to “Leverage interCLICK’s massive data warehouses to effectively target users who have been determined to exhibit certain behaviors throughout interCLICK’s network. interCLICK offers over 350 different Behavioral Targeting categories/sub-categories.”

Among the segments include financial services including “personal banking seekers, credit card seekers, retirement investing.”   There’s a segment targeting “college seekers,” raising issues related to youth marketing.  Another segment is on “health,” including categories targeting “Diet & Fitness Enthusiasts.”

InterClick is just of many ad networks engaged in such data collection and targeting.  But it illustrates why the online ad industry must be regulated, to protect consumer privacy and welfare.

The “Revised” Network Advertising Initiative Principles: Ghost-written by Bernard Madoff?

That was really what we felt reading the “NAI Response to Public Comments” released yesterday.  It accompanied the 2008 principles announcement by the self-regulatory trade online marketing trade group.  The “response” is worth reading, because it really reveals the inability of the group to meaningfully address how to protect consumers online.  You would think that an organization which has Microsoft, Google, Yahoo, Time Warner and many others as paying members could at least clearly state what happens to our data in the online marketing process.  But the real goal of the NAI is to prevent the enactment of serious state and federal privacy policies that would protect consumers. My group put out a statement yesterday discussing the new principles.

The credibility of Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and Time Warner are at stake.  They should be able to ensure that their own organization can honestly address the implications of online advertising.  But it’s time to abandon any call for self-regulation.  That has been a failure.  It’s clear that a growing number of consumer and privacy groups are calling for a legislative solution, as well as a more effective FTC.  Responsible online ad companies will support such regulation.

Google and Network Neutrality: Make Your “Open Edge” Proposals to the Telcos and Cable Companies Public

If the documents reviewed by the Wall Street Journal provide Google with “a fast lane for its own content,” critical questions are raised about its commitment to meaningful network neutrality.  The Google policy blog post suggests that the Journal misunderstood the meaning of the alleged negotiation documents.  What Google wants, they claim, is to develop an effective caching arrangement.  But there are legitimate critical questions that should be raised about the ultimate effect of a contractual deal which places  “servers directly within the network of the service providers.”

We believe Google is seeking this arrangement to ensure that its advertiser-based services, including so-called rich media applications, You Tube branded ads, and multi-media universal search applications, have priority.  We think the future of the democratic potential of the Internet is undermined when those with deep pockets can favor their content over others.  In essence, Google’s Fortune 1000 client base will get to jump to the head of the queue before non-profit, small business and civic applications.  We recognize that many applications use similar strategies.  But all this needs to to be fully publicly debated, especially given the incoming Obama Administration’s support for network neutrality and its own political connections with Google.

That’s why Google should make immediately public the proposals made to phone and cable companies.  Let’s thoughtfully review what they are asking for, understand the context, and engage in the necessary public discussion. Google needs to be forthcoming on this.

Google’s “Policy Fellowships”–Self-Serving Efforts to Help Ward Off Privacy and Online Marketing Protections?

Google has selected 15 organizations for its 2009 “Google Policy Fellowship.” Fellows are funded by Google and will work on “Internet and technology policy” issues over the summer. Take a look at some of the groups it selected and what they say the projects will be (and their positions on Internet issues). And then ask–is Google working to help undermine the public interest in communications policy? Think online privacy and interactive marketing as you read these following excerpts from a number of these groups:

“The Competitive Enterprise Institute is a 501(c)(3) non-profit public interest organization dedicated to advancing the principles of free enterprise and limited government. We believe that individuals are best helped not by government intervention, but by making their own choices in a free marketplace…Electronic privacy: CEI seeks to reframe the online privacy debate in terms of the potential benefits to consumers of greater information sharing, transparency, and marketing. Fellows will explore competing privacy policies and how they are evolving as the public grows more aware of privacy risks. This research will also encompass privacy-enhancing technologies that empower consumers to safeguard personal data on an individualized basis.”

“The Progress & Freedom Foundation (PFF) is a market-oriented think tank that studies the digital revolution and its implications for public policy… Online Advertising & Privacy Policy Issues: PFF defends online advertising as the lifeblood of online content and services, particularly for the “long tail,” and emphasizes a layered approach to privacy protection, including technological self-help, user education, industry self-regulation, and enforcement of existing laws, as a less restrictive—and generally more effective—alternative to increased regulation.”

“The Technology Policy Institute is a think tank that focuses on the economics of innovation, technological change, and related regulation in the United States and around the world… Privacy and data security: benefits and costs to consumers of online information flows, and the effects of alternative privacy policies on consumers and the development of the Internet.”

“The Cato Institute’s research on telecommunications and information policy advances the Institute’s vision of free minds and free markets within the information policy, information technology, and telecommunications sectors of the American economy…Information Policy: Examining how increased data sensing, storage, transfer, processing, and use affect human values like privacy, fairness and Due Process, personal security, and seclusion. Articulating complex technological, social, and legal issues in ordinary language. Promoting the policies that protect these human values consistent with a free society and maximal human liberty.”

Google is also funding fellowships at other groups, including the partially Google funded Center for Democracy and Technology. The CDT connected Internet Education Foundation (which helps run the Congressional Internet Caucus, where Google is a corporate Advisory member) also will house a Google Fellow. There are a few public interest groups hosting Fellows that have an independent track record, including Media Access Project, EFF, and Public Knowledge. But awarding Fellowships to groups which will help it fight off responsible privacy and online marketing safeguards provides another insight into Google’s own political agenda.

Memo to Obama Administration: Time for a “Public Media Corps” [or the WPA Meets the Digital Age]

As the nation faces a severe economic crisis, new jobs–especially for youth– must come from the public sector. We should take this opportunity to create a federally-funded “public media corps.” Its mission would be to revitalize public television, helping it become more relevant for the 21st Century. We have a generation of youth (and many others) adept at using new media, who can create social networks, mobile applications, online video and more. There is a vastly under-utilized system of broadcast stations which can serve as production and distribution hubs for new programming. The public media corps would be tasked to engage in investigative reporting and news production; create new forms of cultural programming that reflect the country’s diversity (something public TV desperately requires, by the way); help develop a new approach to public media communications (in such areas as mobile content and social networks).

As the Obama Administration considers its policy for public broadcasting, it should recognize the system is in deep crisis. There’s been an absence of leadership and vision coming from CPB and PBS [I will let others address NPR, which is much more vital than its TV kin; although they too should be part of the public media corps]. We can use this unfortunate financial melt-down to both re-envision public television and help develop a new generation of digital media advocates, journalists, and creators. At a time when traditional news institutions are in their own crisis, the country needs a way to better see itself. A public media corps could provide numerous digital mirrors–so we could see our mistakes, flaws, and the many positive qualities that can help with the painful transition ahead.